Classic Film Club: 'Smiles of a Summer Night' (1955)
Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Ingmar Bergman's 'Smiles of a Summer Night' (1955)
We’re taught to fear the work of Ingmar Bergman in a million different ways: tired jokes about Nordic gloom, the unrelenting tedium of Woody Allen’s desperately Bergmanesque ‘serious’ films, that stern, endlessly reprinted monochrome shot of Max von Sydow face to face with Death. But the clichés can be true: yes, there’s joy in many of Bergman’s films, but it’s often quickly overwhelmed by grief, loss and crippling nostalgia. ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ couldn’t be more different. In some ways it’s a transitional film for Bergman, moving from the lighter, more impersonal director-for-hire projects that made his name and into the self-serious soul searching of ‘The Seventh Seal’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’. It’s a film possessed of genuine insight and emotional intelligence, but also of warmth, wit and all-embracing empathy.
The set-up owes its allegiances both to Shakespeare and to the nineteenth-century tradition of drawing room comedy, following three upper-class couples (and one bawdy below-stairs twosome) as they fight, flee and fornicate over the course of a long, lush summer’s night. But the narrative, the dialogue and character construction seems strikingly modern, indebted more to the rousing, brittle Hollywood comedies of Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder than the country-house shenanigans of the previous century. But while Hollywood comedy was still in something of a post-war slump – Lubitsch was dead, Sturges spent and Wilder experimenting with drama – Bergman had clearly absorbed the lessons in their work. And as ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ effortlessly demonstrates, the comedy of amorous cynicism and mild hysteria knows no national boundaries.
Like those directors before him, Bergman gets his tonal balance pitch-perfect. Moments of bitter truth (‘Why is youth so terribly unmerciful? And who has given it permission to be that way?’) nestle quite comfortably alongside scenes of swooning, delirious romanticism. There are characters we may dislike intensely – Gunnar Bjornstrand’s self-important lawyer Fredrik, for example, or his mooning, pathetic student son Henrik – but we still rejoice when they find happiness. It’s all underwritten with a broad seam of giddy slapstick, from the infidelity-baiting ‘magic bed’ to the climactic duel, in which Bergman confirms his debt to ’40s Hollywood by indulging in a series of bleak, troubling, but still hilarious suicide jokes.
And yet the lessons Bergman seems to be expounding here – that comedy and insight need not be mutually exclusive, that characters can be petty, infantile and self-absorbed and yet remain likeable, that passion and cynicism need not cancel one another out – might be said to directly conflict with much of his later work. Which is not to dismiss Bergman’s heavy epics: humanity, frailty, the immutability of existence and the absence of God, these are serious subjects, and need to be treated as such. But ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ seems to point a different way, to a more inclusive, generous and even populist Bergman that could have been (and perhaps was, in the shape of Woody Allen, however much Allen might hate himself for it). And so, while there’s a great deal to be gained from experiencing (or enduring, but never quite enjoying) Bergman’s later, weightier movies, ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ seems a purer, simpler, richer pleasure.
Author: Tom Huddleston
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