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Smiles of a Summer Night: The Criterion Collection

Bergman laughs! A mutt of a farce, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), the Swedish auteur's most enjoyable work, is the careful (was Bergman ever anything but?) blending of numerous influences ranging from Shakespeare to Mozart to Moliere to, it would appear, the sophisticated screwball comedies of Ernst Lubitsch. For the most part, though, Bergman's approach is purely theatrical in the writing, with three clearly defined acts of mounting sexual complications culminating in a payoff that winds up a live round short of adding Chekhov to its dramatic ancestry. Bergman's "romantic comedy" begins in the house of Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a well-to-do, fortysomething lawyer currently betrothed to the virginal 19-year-old Anne, who clings to her innocence despite being in her second year of marriage. Though Fredrik clearly loves Anne, his is a doting kind of parental love, which is overtly suggested by his addressing Anne as one of his "children" alongside Henrik (Bjorn Vjelvenstam), his brooding, priesthood-bound son from a previous marriage. Anne clearly harbors deep affection for the Martin Luther-quoting Henrik, who is tortured by the inflamed carnal desires stoked by the flirtatious maid, Petra (Harriet Andersson). Meanwhile, his manly needs not being sated by Anne, Fredrik seeks to get reacquainted with the luminous actress Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck), a former lover who, rather disconcertingly, has a son bearing the lawyer's moniker. But while Desiree still regards Fredrik warmly, she is now serving as mistress to the martial, duel-happy Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), who also happens to be married to Anne's best friend, Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist). Unlike the rest of these illicit lovers, Carl-Magnus and Charlotte have an arrangement ostensibly aimed at staving off jealousy, but theirs is a well-intentioned bit of malarkey. They're both insanely jealous individuals; Carl-Magnus declares himself a "tiger" should anyone touch his mistress or his wife, while the free-to-cheat Charlotte enters into a scheme with Desiree to drive Fredrik back into the diva's arms. After an hour's worth of set-up, Bergman finally brings his dramatis personae together on the country estate of Desiree's elderly mother (Naima Wifstrand), where they imbibe a vintage with alleged libidinous after-effects, and the obligatory farcical waltz commences. Bergman is, as ever, a maddening telegrapher, which blunts the potential hilarity of his ribald scenario, but he's lighter on his feet than usual, allowing for a bit of joy to spill into the thematically weighty proceedings. In love, all adults are reduced to childlike behavior, and the director prefers for once to see his characters happily succumbing to temptation than anguishing over it. The dourest of the bunch, Henrik, is actually the film's most amusing creation, acknowledging, with Martin Luther's guidance, the inevitability of temptation while fussing way too mightily to avoid its clutches (i.e. he might not be ready for the experienced Petra, but he's clearly ready for something). That Bergman concludes Henrik's story first also suggests that he's most enamored of his sinners, and it's nice to seem him let them off with mere glancing humiliations. Though the unfettered hopefulness seems a touch false at the film's close, at least it's there. Also uncharacteristic, Bergman utilizes two music cues to sublimely humorous effect: the jarring march announcing Carl-Magnus's initial appearance and the gentle trumpet punctuating the unlikely arrival of a paramour's bed. Gunnar Fischer's incandescent cinematography is every bit the equal of his watershed work in The Seventh Seal. The Criterion Collection presents Smiles of a Summer Night in a superb full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras are a bit light, limited to a brief introduction by Bergman and a video conversation between film historian Peter Cowie and Bergman collaborator Jorn Donner. Somewhat remedying this is the accompanying 24-page booklet that features matchless essays by Pauline Kael and John Simon, who is never more valuable than when writing about Bergman. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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