06 February 2006

100 films: Sommarnattens leende

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starring: Ulla Jacobsson, Eva Dahlbeck, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Jarl Kulle
written by: Ingmar Bergman
directed by: Ingmar Bergman
NR, 108 min, 1955, Sweden

Successful lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) has a young wife (Ulla Jacobsson) he hasn’t slept with, a son (Björn Bjelfvenstam) who lusts after his father’s wife and maid, and a dormant love affair with a well-known actress (Eva Dahlbeck). After a visit to the theatre, he meets his former mistress’s new love–a jealous military man (Jarl Kulle) prone to dueling and boastful claims of infidelity. But few in this arrangement seem content with the cards they’ve drawn, so the women begin planning the means by which they can get the men they truly love. Naturally, this involves several underhanded techniques, including a wife wagering her husband that she can seduce Egerman in under fifteen minutes, and a button that moves a bed from one room to the next without waking the occupant[1].

All of this is filmed with tongue firmly in cheek by master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, thus making Sommarnattens leende a traditional comedy, a bit of a departure for Bergman as we know him, but perfectly normal for a young director largely unknown outside his native Sweden. Bergman had yet to make the masterpieces Det Sjunde inseglet (1957), Smultronstället (1957), and Nattvardsgästerna (1963)[2], had yet to plumb the depths of despair or question the nature of God or inspire the term “Bergmanesque” for generations of film buffs the world over.[3] Still, this is Bergman, so Sommarnattens leende is a comedy not so much because it includes humor, but more because it lacks that all-encompassing sense of desperation we come to expect. It’s like calling fifty degrees balmy in the middle of winter.

Oh, but what a lovely fifty degrees it is. Beyond a token pratfall, the humor comes in sharp little jabs meant to be both devilish and witty at the same time. The film is dark, sadistic, amoral, and a lot of fun. Bergman’s main skewer is Fredrik’s son Henrik, a minister in training who spends long hours reading aloud the works of Martin Luther and preaching virtue, but is at numerous opportunities succumbing to the temptations of the flesh. For these indiscretions he is understandably tormented, but Bergman gets great delight not by showing his torment, but by ridiculing it as the idealism of a foolish youth. There’s no mistaking that the film views Henrik as an idiot. He has the respect of no one, not even himself, and he loathes a father who, from what we can tell, appears to be a reasonable man. But Henrik cannot seem to strike a balance between his actions and his beliefs. In one scene he is sleeping with the maid, but the next morning when she attempts to seduce him, he runs away ashamed. In a world where infidelity is bandied about minus remorse, this makes him the object of scorn.

Probably the best way to describe Sommarnattens leende is as a vicious comedy of manners. The jealous military man, Count Carl Magnus Malcolm, declares before his wife, “I can tolerate my wife's infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger.”, then declares the reverse before his mistress, with little thought as to how either woman will react. Later, he challenges Fredrik to a duel of Russian roulette where between spins of the chamber, they toast to each other’s health. Essentially what Bergman does is take a normal, Victorian scenario and infuse it with his worldview, his fallacies, and his dark sense of humor. Sommarnattens leende is a comedy, but more importantly it is a vital piece of the Bergman filmography for it shows a side of him that we don’t often see, and rarely account for when we think of something as “Bergmanesque”, even though it fits the criteria perfectly. We tend to forget that Bergman had a sense of humor, which is a shame, because it’s razor sharp.

[1] This had been previously used by a King so that he may “frolic” with another man’s wife, one of the many benefits of royalty.

[2] For those of you who don’t speak Swedish, that’s The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Winter Light, respectively.

[3] Naturally, you can see all of those things in his earlier work, but he had not really entered the radar of the English-speaking world yet.