Director: Ingmar Bergman
Criterion in a remastered Region 1 DVD/Blu-ray edition that includes a fascinating twenty-five minute long interview filmed in January 2012 with its star, 80-year old Harriet Andersson.
If you think of Bergman as a man whose films deal primarily with the problems of mature, if not middle-aged, people, Summer with Monika will come as a surprise. Of all Bergman's major films, this is the closest to what might be called a youth film. In a rising and falling arc, it follows the development and dissolution of a love affair and marriage between two young people still in their teens, eighteen-year old Monika (Harriet Andersson) and nineteen-year old Harry (Lars Ekborg). The two first meet by chance in a cafe, where Monika picks up Harry and jokingly proposes that they run away together. Half an hour into the movie, that's exactly what they do. Propelled by circumstances, dissatisfaction with their lives, and resentment of interference from adults, they take Harry's father's small boat and head off for an island-hopping summer idyll of sexual exploration and escape from the tedium of normal life. "We rebelled, Monika, against all of them," Harry says.
For a while they live in a blissfully insular world, sustained by the sun and the sea, the exhilaration of sexual novelty (at least on Harry's part), and the liberating effect of freedom from responsibility. By summer's end, though, reality comes crashing in on them. Broke, disheveled, half-starved, and expecting a baby, they have no choice but to return to Stockholm, marry, and settle down to staid middle-class lives. It is at this point that the relationship begins to come apart, its disintegration hastened by their differing temperaments and social backgrounds.
Early in the film Bergman limns the personalities of Monika and Harry in just a few scenes. In their first encounter in the cafe it is clear that Monika is bold, spirited, and spontaneous while Harry is more inhibited and reactive. A few brief scenes of the two at their jobs reinforce this initial impression. Harry works in the shipping department of a ceramics and porcelain wholesaler's. It's plain that he finds the work mundane and that he is treated by his older coworkers as a scapegoat who gets the blame for everything that goes wrong, yet he tamps down his boredom and annoyance, grudgingly bearing the situation. Monika, who works in the stockroom of a greengrocer's, is harassed by her male coworkers and treated condescendingly. Her reaction, in contrast, is to stand up for herself and meet aggression with counter-aggression.
A couple of compact sequences showing the home lives of the two suggest how different is the social milieu each comes from. Harry lives a well-ordered life with his widowed father in a comfortable middle-class flat. Monika's life, on the other hand, is far more disordered and working-class. She lives in a crowded tenement, sharing a tiny, shabby flat with her harried mother, several younger siblings, and abusive alcoholic father. Hers is an untidy, chaotic environment lacking the conventionality and consistency of Harry's.
With such different personalities and backgrounds, it's no wonder that once they return to Stockholm, set up house, and become parents, their reactions to their changed circumstances are so different. Here the film moves closer to familiar Bergman territory, as it concentrates on the relationship problems of the young couple, exacerbated by incompatible expectations of their future life together. Harry's attitude is that of a realist. As soon as he learns Monika is pregnant, he begins to think of the future practically, in terms of training for a career and establishing a settled life. As he grows more mature and responsible, Monika seems to become more willful, self-centered, and erratic. To her, Harry's equable nature begins to look like innate dullness; to Harry, Monika's spontaneity begins to resemble instability. It's easy to understand why Jean-Luc Godard wrote of Monika, "Only Bergman can film men as they are loved but hated by women, and women as they are hated but loved by men."
Just as the picture's themes are in some ways unusual in Bergman's work while in other ways they look ahead to his later films, the same is true of Bergman's style in Summer with Monika. Perhaps the most singular thing about it as a Bergman film is the large role played by nature. The film opens with a silent montage of scenes of the harbor in Stockholm and contains several other extended nature montages, especially during the long middle section where Monika and Harry camp out on an island, living an almost Edenic existence. I don't recall seeing another Bergman film that dwells this much on nature as atmosphere, almost like the pillow shots in an Ozu film. In its more purely narrative sections, Monika already shows Bergman's tendency to use fully developed, play-like scenes filmed in long, continuous takes, a strategy that requires very precise staging of scenes and meticulous planning of camera moves within a scene. It's a stylistic signature Bergman would continue to use for the rest of his filmmaking career.
Near the end is one scene that shows how Bergman, whose background was in theater, recast theater effects in purely cinematic terms, a technique he would continue to expand and refine in later films. After Monika and Harry have broken up, Harry, carrying the baby, passes by the porcelain shop where he worked at the beginning of the film when he first met Monika and pauses before a large oval mirror on the front of the shop. As he gazes into it, the light within the mirror fades to black and scenes of him and Monika from earlier in the film appear in it. Then as those scenes fade, he sees reflected in the mirror the image of his household possessions—this taking place behind him in the present—being removed in preparation for his return to his father's flat. It's the kind of imaginative, succinct imagery of the coexistence of past and present within an individual's consciousness that would reach its fullest expression in later Bergman films like 1957's Wild Strawberries.
Still, the thing that might stay in your mind most tenaciously after seeing the movie is that haunting close-up of Harriet Andersson as Monika, sitting in a cafe with the man with whom she is being unfaithful to Harry, as she gazes boldly into the camera as if daring us to judge her actions. In the filmed interview included with the Criterion release of Summer with Monika, Harriet Andersson discusses how mystifying Bergman's decision to film that shot was to her and everyone involved with the movie. Looking directly into the camera was something that just wasn't done. One explanation for Bergman's defiance of movie convention may be that although it is Harry he seems to identify with, it is plainly Monika with her almost feral sexuality who is the object of his—and the camera's—adoration. That enigmatic close-up just might be his way of expressing his fascination with the troubled character and the charismatic actress playing her. (Soon after filming was completed, Bergman and Andersson began an affair). In it Bergman suspends Andersson in time and immortalizes her.
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