When looking at the careers of legendary directors, writers and actors in retrospect, it can be interesting to analyze just what path they took before reaching greatness. Today, Ingmar Bergman is internationally known as one of the great auteurs of all time. But while he was already an established director for nine years in his native Sweden, it was not until his fifteenth film as director that Bergman achieved international acclaim in 1955. That film was Smiles of a Summer Night. Hit the jump for my review.
Smiles of a Summer Night introduced viewers to the comic side of Bergman in a tale of four men and four women trying to find their true love in a mix of complex interconnected relationships. Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) is an older lawyer married to a teenaged wife, Anne (Ulla Jacobsson) with whom he has never consummated. In his younger days Fredrik had an affair with the famous actress Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck). When he hears that the actress is in town for a play, he decides to visit her. Their reminiscing is interrupted by Desiree’s current fling, the Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), who happens to be married to one of Anne’s good friends, Charlotte (Margit Carlquist). Desiree decides that she loves Fredrik over the Count, so she concocts this elaborate scheme to win him that involves inviting both couples to her mother’s for dinner, along with Fredrik’s son Henrik (Björn Bjelvenstam), who shares unspoken feelings with Anne. There are some hiccups, but eventually Desiree’s plan plays out successfully on all counts.
Running parallel to these shenanigans two of the servants have a love affair of their own!
The above description may make Smiles out to be more convoluted than it is. In actuality, the film has a clean, fast-moving story, not particularly deep, but entertaining. Bergman’s direction has a light, subtle touch, bringing out some wonderful performances from the actors, especially Gunnar Björnstrand as Fredrik Egerman. Considering that the last film of Bergman’s I watched was Stardust and Tinsel, Smiles in contrast exhibits the breadth of his talent.
One of the most striking elements of Smiles is that for about the 75% of the film, the visual, musical and acting styles are as reminiscent of 1950s Hollywood movies as anything I have seen from any of the great European auteurs. Save for the language, one would think one is watching a studio movie. That changes at the beginning of the dinner scene, at which point the feel of the movie becomes very European—considering the importance of this sequence, this is a very deliberate choice—but that Hollywood-style sheen returns again at the end of the film.
However, the subject matter of the film, what with its numerous extramarital affairs and surprisingly frank discussions of sex, could not be further from a Hollywood studio film of the Hays Code era.
This being my first Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, I was greatly anticipating the marriage of the company putting out the highest quality disc releases with the best in home video technology, and I was not disappointed. Picture and sound were astounding, with the Blu-Ray elevating the already outstanding standards of the Criterion Collection. Bonus features include the original Swedish trailer for the film (in remarkably good shape for an old trailer), an intro interview to the film with Bergman himself, and a featurette discussing of two Bergman scholars discussing the movie. As is often the case with Criterion extras, what they lack in production value (compared to the slickness of big studio discs), they more than make up for in quality of content and information.
Smile of a Summer Night is excellent viewing for those who want to see the breadth of Bergman’s work and for blowing up preconceptions of European art films.
[Blu-ray screencaps courtesy of DVD Beaver]