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The Goal: Find Love or Inflict Humiliation
Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night

In 1955, after making two commercially unsuccessful films and entering a period of personal and financial crisis, Ingmar Bergman wrote and directed Smiles of a Summer Night, whose sheer exuberance seemed to fly in the face of his predicaments. It is, as Pauline Kael suggests in an essay reprinted in the new Criterion release’s liner notes, in some ways the work for which many of Bergman’s fifteen previous films were merely rough drafts. It is a witty battle of the sexes in which a variety of couples, married and otherwise, get jumbled up before being set back with their proper mates (though they may not have be the ones they started the film with).

Having gotten the form right, he never returned to it on this scale.

The film’s success—it won Grand Prix for Best Comedy at Cannes—helped bring Bergman considerable attention and artistic freedom. As Bergman himself observed in a 2003 interview included on the Criterion DVD, “[S]ince the success of Smiles of a Summer Night, I’ve never had anybody interfering in my business. I’ve done whatever I wanted.”

But it was his next film, The Seventh Seal, that brought him a sustained world audience and introduced the themes that audiences would soon come to expect in a Bergman film. After Smiles of a Summer Night, his stories are darker, his themes more openly existential, and his visual style becomes less crowded. In time, Bergman’s films would exhibit a momentum that often relies as much on editing rhythm as it does on the spoken word.

Smiles of a Summer Night is thus a languid comedic gem to linger on not only because it is a seemingly perfect comedy, but because it stands as a transition marker in Bergman’s growth as a director.


Kael rightly argues that Smiles of a Summer Night’s relatively remote setting (turn-of-the-century Sweden) draws us closer to the story and helps it avoid the banal failings of earlier Bergman modern, middle-class offerings. (It also helps us laugh more readily at the characters’ pomposities and artificially stiff cultural rules.) There’s a luminous, even magical quality to the film that seems downright intoxicating. Of course, all the film’s talk about magic and pagan rituals of love probably help too.

Conventional religion appears in the film as well, in conflict with all the talk of love. (This is a Bergman film, after all, comedy or no.) Henrik Egerman, the son of a successful, self-satisfied lawyer, is studying to enter the church and comically exhibits the conflicting impulses of a young, anxious romantic. Whatever his conscious motives may be, we soon realize that his religious study is an attempt to sublimate his sexual desires, and he is, in fact, in love with his father’s second wife, the nineteen-year-old Anne, although he can’t find the means to express it forcefully enough. (In their first scene together, he reads a flesh-denying religious tract to her while she does needlepoint: “Virtue arms the virtuous man, and although temptation is an attack, it is not a defeat.”)

In turn, we soon discover that the young wife’s affections aren’t directed back to her husband Fredrik, and they have yet to consummate their two-year-old marriage. For his part, the elder Egerman finds his attraction to an old flame warming again. The actress Desirée Armfeldt, with whom he had an affair for two years after the death of his first wife, is more mature and knowing when it comes to interaction between the sexes, and she represents a union Egerman strongly misses in his marriage to a younger woman he doesn’t fully understand. (Indeed, Egerman groups Anne and his son under the common term, ‘children,’ and tells Desirée his home sometimes “seems like some kindergarten for love.”)

The real trouble starts when the elder Egerman murmurs Desirée’s name in his sleep, just hours before the couple attends one of her performances. Anne leaves the performance early in tears (after sizing up her competition), and just hours later, Egerman makes an overture to his former mistress and runs afoul of her new lover (a jealous military officer who happens to be married; when he arrives, he tells Desirée he has twenty hours’ leave: “Three to get here, nine with you, five with my wife, and three to return”). Once Desirée arranges to gather all the players at her mother’s country estate—the three Egermans, the jealous military officer and his wife—with the purpose of righting the tilted scales, Bergman’s comedy takes on its charming, magical glow.

The shift to the country is critical here. In the city, the couples would have been thwarted indefinitely. In the countryside, they find their problems resolved, thanks to previously unsuspected natural forces. During dinner, for instance, Desirée’s mother warns her guests that, according to legend, the wine they are about to drink


is pressed from grapes whose juice gushes out like drops of blood against the pale grape skin. It is also said that to each cask filled with this wine was added a drop of milk from a young mother’s breast and a drop of seed from a young stallion. These lend to the wine’s secret seductive powers. Whoever drinks hereof does so at his own risk and must answer for himself.


As they drink the wine, each character in turn calls upon the wine to answer their secret wishes. A primitive religion is at work here, blending fertility with nature’s own mysterious forces. Just as Desirée advances her plan for her mother’s guests, so the gods do as well. Hence the film’s title: “The summer night has three smiles,” one character says to his lover. The first comes “between midnight and dawn, when young lovers open their hearts and loins.” The second smile is for “the jesters, the fools and the incorrigible.” And the third smile is for “the sad and dejected, for the sleepless and lost souls, for the frightened and the lonely.”

Ironically (and appropriately for Bergman) the happy denouement doesn’t follow conventional Christian lines of moral virtue: one man will end up with another’s wife, one will leave his wife for an actress and only one man will find his marriage restored to him. And throughout the movement towards the right and natural couplings, Bergman does something he continues to delight in through the years: he shows us pretentious men making fools of themselves.


A glossary of words without which Bergman’s films cannot be appreciated would probably begin with ‘humiliation’ and move quickly to its bitterly missed sibling, ‘love.’ Of course, love is far more difficult to define than humiliation (telling, isn’t it?), but it could be defined for Bergman’s purposes (if incompletely) as trusting another person enough to open yourself up to them in the hopes of communicating in an honest and immediate way. (Often, that communication is wordless: a touch, for Bergman, could complete a life, if not a film, sadly.)

The two are inextricably entwined for Bergman. His most aggressive characters routinely inflict humiliation on those weaker than themselves, particularly when they’re spurned by the object of their desire. These aggressive characters are almost always men, who don’t fare well in Bergman’s world, although occasionally a particularly masculine woman will be allowed into Bergman’s sadistic world of aggressors. And the fear of humiliation keeps a fair percentage of Bergman’s characters from stepping forward and declaring their love, in their own right. (As the elder Egerman says of his friendship with Desirée, she is “The only person to whom I can show myself in all my unsightly nakedness.”)

Think, for example, of the haunted sisters in Cries and Whispers: Karin, hard-edged and inflexible, lashes out at the servant Anna (herself a yielding, mothering figure), and quickly recovers her masculine spite after a brief expression of love (through touching) with the frightened but physically expressive Maria. (A similar pairing of masculine / feminine opposites—and a preoccupation with touching—appears in the sisters of The Silence.)

The love / humiliation struggle runs through the Bergman canon, but with the pompous gestures its male characters make one against the other, Smiles of a Summer Night is one of its most purely enjoyable permutations (if only because it is ultimately harmless). It also contains one of the clearest speeches Bergman offers about how his most knowledgeable women in these 1950s comedies deal with men and their demands to be treated with ‘dignity.’ The speech is given by Desirée in the play in which we see her perform early in the film:


We women have the right to commit manifold sins against husbands, lovers and sons, excepting one: to offend their dignity. If we do so, we are foolish and must bear the consequences. Rather, we should make of a man’s dignity our foremost ally and caress it, soothe it, speak fondly to it and handle it as our dearest toy. Only then do we have a man in our hands, at our feet, or wherever else we want him at that particular moment.


It’s not the most liberated role for a woman to play, of course, but then again, it doesn’t speak well of Bergman’s men either, does it? Framed in a self-consciously distant period setting and suspended in the delicate framework of comedy, though, it sparkles.

—Review by Doug Childers



Special Features of the Criterion DVD

• New high-definition digital transfer with restored image and sound

• Video introduction to the film by Ingmar Bergman

• New video conversation with film historian Peter Cowie and writer Jörn Donner (executive producer, Fanny and Alexander)

• Swedish theatrical trailer

• New and improved English subtitle translation

• Optimal image quality: RSDL dual-layer edition



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