Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.
Spine: #237
Release Date: May 3, 2011
Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.

A few years ago, two of my teenage nieces were visiting my wife and me for the summer. When my birthday came around, they thought I was “super lame” when I got giddy after my wife gave me an Ingmar Bergman boxset instead of some skinny jeans from Hollister or something. I’m still giddy about this box set and watch these movies one or two times each year. The set includes Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Winter Strawberries, and The Virgin Spring. Each film is also available individually from The Criterion Collection.

When I decided to start writing a few thoughts on Bergman’s movies, I was tempted to begin with the three films he made in the early 1960s, often called the Faith Trilogy or the Silence of God trilogy. They were my introduction to Bergman, after all, and Winter Light, the second film, is possibly my favorite movie ever. But for reasons to come, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) seemed a better place to start.

First, Smiles of a Summer Night was the film that brought international success to Bergman. Though he was still a young filmmaker, beginning with Torment in 1944, over the course of a decade he’d already directed 15 feature films. In fact, that he had been so prolific but failed to gain a large audience had taxed Bergman, and it’s hard to get into a discussion about this film without also discussing the depression Bergman was apparently suffering when he wrote it.

Brooding, melancholic, depressing . . . not at all! At the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, Smiles of a Summer Night won the award for Best Poetic Humor, the perfect award for this picture. So this is the second reason I want to start with this film: despite his reputation, Bergman wasn’t all seriousness and sadness, and it pays to remember that. The Criterion cover shows a couple reveling the glorious new dawn.

This movie never fails to charm me, and I can confidently say it never will. Set at the turn of the century (19th to 20th), it begins by introducing us to Fredrik Egerman, played by the great — and I’ll keep bringing him up as I go through more of Berman’s films — Gunnar Björnstrand (one thing I like about Bergman is his use of the same actors over and over again; they are great actors, and it’s fantastic to see them bring out different roles as they age).

Fredrik Egerman is a middle-aged lawyer and has lost his first wife. That’s in the past (kind of). He’s now married to nineteen-year-old Anne (Ulla Jacobsson). They’ve been married for two years when this movie begins, and they’ve never consummated the relationship. Anne is reticent and Fredrik is sensitive: he’d like it to happen — so noble — on her time, when she’s ready. Here they are, early in the film, taking a nap together.  They look like two dead people sharing a casket.

But as ignorant as Anne is about sex, she is curious and, perhaps, willing. There’s a moment during the nap when Fredrik looks like he may be making his move, but then he slips up, obviously mostly asleep, and says the name “Desiree.”

Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck) is an old “friend” of Fredrik’s, and it just so happens that Fredrik and Anne are going to see a play that night in which she’s the star. She’s an actress – that says it all (or so the folks say) – and Anne, completely jealous now, cannot stomach the performance and goes home to go to bed. Fredrik, unaware of his slip-up during the nap and therefore ignorant of his wife’s real reason for leaving, decides to go out on a walk with Desiree, ends up soaking wet after falling in a puddle, and, because Desiree’s place is close, has to warm up by putting on the night-clothes of Desiree’s current lover, the arrogant, militaristic Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle). Naturally, the Count shows up during this awkward moment.

Well, the Count’s (also young) wife, Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), knows full-well about her husband’s affair with Desiree, and, despite the comfortable lifestyle he provides her, she doesn’t approve. Desiree doesn’t seem to like the arrangement either. Fredrik has always been her favorite (and may even be the father of her son, Fredrik).

All of this is set up in just the first bit of the film. The fun really begins when Charlotte and Desiree form an unlikely but believable alliance, Charlotte to secure the affections of her own husband, the Count, and Desiree to secure the affections of Anne’s husband, Fredrik. But don’t worry. They aren’t so cruel as to leave Anne out: she can have Fredrik’s grown son, Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam). Henrik is chastely studying to be a minister even amidst the distraction of his father’s young wife and her curvy maid Petra (Hariet Andersson, one of my favorites). Oh, but Henrick has some urges:

Off the families and lovers go to spend some time together in the countryside at the estate of Desiree’s mother, where Charlotte and Desiree hope their plan will come to fruition. Along for the ride and unbridled are Petra and the lusty groomsman Frid (Åke Fridell).

Marvelously acted and full of wit, this is a very fun romantic comedy that manages to be exceedingly light and a touch grave:

Okay, it’s not actually that grave at all. Though Bergman is primarily remembered for his darker films, he should also be remembered for making one of the greatest comedies of all time — before he went on to make some of the greatest films of all time. Thankfully, besides launching his career, this movie gave Bergman that independence.

This edition is not particularly loaded, containing only a couple of features.

First we get a 4-minute introduction by Ingmar Bergman from 2003. He calls it a turning point “in every way.” He talks about how surprised he was when the film was so well received, finding out that it played at Cannes one day while reading a newspaper on the toilet. Due to its success, he received a great deal more freedom to pursue the projects he was personally interested in. Also, I was interested to hear that at the time Bergman was very poor and had to borrow money from Bibi Andersson, whom he was dating a the time, to buy a plane ticket to Cannes to follow up on the film.

Second — and last, other than the trailer — there is a 17-minute discussion between Peter Cowie and writer Jörn Donner.

Along with the disc, we get a nice booklet featuring an essay by John Simon about Bergman’s career building up to this film. Also in the booklet is Pauline Kael’s review of the film.

So, while the supplements are not as great as we might be used to, spoiled as we are, but this is a tremendous film and a great presentation.

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