Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Gunnar Bjornstrand, Eva Dahlbeck, Ulla Jacobsson


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Out of all the Bergman movies I’ve seen by now – this one makes seven – this is the first one I’ve watched and thought to myself, “None of these people are too bright.” There are characters here and there who are foolish in the other movies of his I’ve seen, like Skat from The Seventh Seal, who thought a tree would save him from Death, or Maria from Cries and Whispers, who has the mind of a pubescent girl instead of a grown woman. But everyone in Smiles of a Summer Night, not coincidentally the only comedy of Bergman’s I’ve watched, seems like they’re missing a screw. Fredrik (Bjornstrand) is arrogant, a cold fish in social interactions, unnecessarily condescending to his son, Henrik (Bjorn Bjelfvenstam). For his own part, Henrik and his stepmother, Anne (Jacobsson), who looks to be even younger than him, are foolish in the way that young people can be foolish. Henrik is a theological student with a preference for Luther. The way he returns to the idea of temptation as birds nesting in his hair is, the way he says it, almost masturbatory, as if the idea of temptation itself is so engaging that it makes him lose his cool. Anne is a virgin after two years of marriage, which turns out to be a relief considering what she and Henrik end up doing together; heck, it’s a relief considering how much idle flirtation is going on in the Egerman house without the head of household being involved at all. (Anne acts out her jealousy that Henrik is so enraptured with Petra, the maid, by telling him that she’ll burn several of his possessions, by slapping him, etc.) Just about everyone Fredrik comes into contact with seems to know that his young wife and his young son are a dangerous pairing, like keeping two highly reactive chemicals right next to one another and hoping they won’t jump into each other’s beakers, and Fredrik has no response for it. There’s no respectable answer to that sort of snark except more snark; telling people that his wife loves him would be a pathetic lie, and telling people that Henrik is making inroads against him would be somehow worse. Only more sardonic humor would defuse that tension, and Fredrik is too serious with everyone else. The only person he can exert any kind of control over is Henrik, and Henrik is maybe the only one who wouldn’t say something about him sleeping with Anne behind his dad’s back.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the cranky lawyer with the bad haircut is the significantly more polished soldier, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle). Carl-Magnus has a neat little mustache and a monocle that pops on and off sometimes. He is a gentleman by birth, which gives him the leeway to act like a dog around women. Mostly, he reminds me of that Will Ferrell character from Weekend Update who can’t control the sound of his voice. I aspire to be more like him because I’m not sure Carl-Magnus is capable of feeling shame. Some of his first words on screen describe his punctuality and planning (good) and how he’s broken up the twenty hours of leave he has for travel, his mistress, and his wife (uh). He’s married to a woman, Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), who is not all that much older than Anne; where Anne is as fresh-faced as a fifth-grader, Charlotte wears a cat eye which doesn’t much flatter her. Charlotte would be in the running for the award for the smartest person under fifty in this movie if she wasn’t so hopelessly in love with her husband, who takes her for granted. Carl-Magnus bursts out of a conversation with her at one point to defend the honor of his mistress, Desiree Armfeldt (Dahlbeck): you can dally around with my wife, he cries, but touch my mistress and “I become a tiger!” (Later on he’ll say the same thing, merely switching around “wife” and “mistress.”) The Egermans appear to be much too intelligent to get themselves in the situations they find themselves in. Henrik and Anne should know better than to fool around with each other, Fredrik should have known better than to marry a teenager at his age, and all of them are too well-educated and too well-bred to make fools of themselves so openly. Desiree fleetingly but meaningfully looks into Fredrik and Anne’s box at a play one night from the stage and Anne freaks out; later that night, Fredrik falls into the world’s smallest lake in front of a house while trying to cajole Desiree into some sex and is paid by having to walk home in another man’s nightshirt. The Malcolms, on the other hand, seem perfectly suited to play in this arena. Carl-Magnus is a moron, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of his life. In an unusual way, I find him inspiring.

Mrs. Armfeldt (Naima Wifstrand), Desiree’s wizened old mother with a long history of having sex with interesting men, which includes an episode of defenestration, and Petra (Harriet Andersson), the naughty maid, seem to be the people in the film who understand themselves the best. Carl-Magnus would tell you he’s a noble soldier when he’s just a well-off roue, Fredrik would tell you he’s a learned, rational pillar of the community when he’s in fact a laughingstock, etc. But neither Mrs. Armfeldt nor Petra has any delusions about what kind of people they are. For Mrs. Armfeldt, who can no longer walk and who sits alone on one side of the great table at dinner, that means responsibility. Indeed, she is probably the most responsible person of the bunch. At the end of that dinner, she introduces the wine they’re about to drink which, according to her, includes a drop of breastmilk and the seed of a stallion. If you drink this wine, she warns, there may be consequences for it; don’t drink if you’re not prepared to accept what will happen later. Mrs. Armfeldt is not really in any danger from the heady powers of the wine, but the point is well-made; if you’re willing to accept what comes from a potentially rash action, to work through it once it happens, then it’s not really so rash in the first place. Petra, who is about the same age as Anne and has at least moved on to the ninth grade in her head, does not get to drink the wine at dinner even though she is the one who best represents Mrs. Armfeldt’s warning. She meets Frid (Ake Fridell), one of the servants at the Armfeldt house, who shows her around. The best part of the house? There’s a bedroom which will move a woman’s bed from the next room over into itself. (Henrik will discover the button when he falls on it after a badly botched suicide attempt; Anne, sleeping, will roll in. Maybe I am dead after all, Henrik whispers.) While the wealthy folks involve themselves in their strange trysts, play Russian roulette, make bets that they can seduce other women’s husbands in fifteen minutes flat, run off together in the middle of the night with the metaphorical birds nesting in their hair, Frid and Petra roll around in the hay and lounge under trees in the unyielding sun. The courtship rituals of the well-off, of actresses and countesses, of officers and lawyers, are made for comedy because they’re utterly ridiculous. Carl-Magnus, who catches Charlotte and Fredrik in the middle of something suspicious which is definitely not sex – interrupting Fredrik while he wants to bang someone is as reliable a running gag as “Myth, myth!” “Yeth?” in The Muppet Movie – says the only way to fix this little problem they have is a game of Russian roulette. On the fourth shot, after having had some very nice cognac together and made some polite smalltalk, a giant bang is heard and Carl-Magnus emerges, guffawing. This would be a little macabre, but Carl-Magnus explains himself to Desiree and Charlotte. He put soot in the gun. What, did they think he was going to risk his life over that guy? Meanwhile, Frid and Petra, despite little touches of ennui, get something like the satisfaction with each other that no other couple can really relate to and without the parlor games. Frid has to agree to marry Petra if he wants her to let go of his ears, but at least he isn’t the fool with soot all over his face.

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