Monday, November 01, 2004

Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens Leende)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener/Cries and Whispers: The Cinema of Ingmar Bergman)

As the opening credits specify, this is "a romantic comedy by Ingmar Bergman" (well, actually they say it in Swedish, so that's not an exact quotation). Bergman is not exactly a filmmaker known for light, cheerful movies, which perhaps makes that initial identification necessary.

Calling Smiles a romantic comedy rather than, say, a sex farce, may be miscategorizing it. It is frequently quite funny, but though the couples formed at the end tend to be well-matched, I'm not sure how romantic the movie is. It is, I think, kind of odd to have a romantic comedy where the only characters who actually fall for each other during the film's running time are decidedly secondary characters, rather apart from the main action.

Of course, there are a number of pre-existing relationships as the movie starts. Frederik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a successful lawyer in 1900 Sweden, with a young wife Anne (Ulla Jacobsson) and a not-quite-so-young son Henrik (Björn Bjelvenstam). An actress who has recently returned to town, Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck) was once his mistress, but is currently the mistress of Baron Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), whose wife Charlotte (Margit Carlquist) is a friend of Anne's. Also moving in and out of the picture is the Egermans' maid Petra (Harriet Andersson), an pretty young girl whose uninhibited sexuality is rather vexing to the religious-minded Henrik.

Naturally, by the end of the picture, these circumstances will be rearranged somewhat. In the meantime, it's enjoyable to watch the characters play off each other: Desiree, one gets the impression, probably learned how to manipulate men at her mother's knee, while Frederik is a bit unsure how to relate to his son's prudishness. Anne is barely more than a girl, still a virgin despite being married for two and a half of her nineteen years. Malcolm, a soldier by trade, is arrogant and often belligerent, while his wife has a personality that is just as forceful, though she generally keeps her aggression in reserve.

This 1955 movie was considered somewhat racy when it first arrived in the Unites States - not only did men and women share the same beds, but they clearly did more than sleep there! For that matter, one could certainly easily infer after some of the scenes with Anne and Petra that Anne's virginity only extended to men. Though such matters may seem quaint now, older prints (and the home video releases drawn from them) omitted subtitles in certain scenes, a matter remedied on this sharp new Academy-ratio black-and-white print. Smiles of a Summer Night is one of a dozen Bergman films playing the Brattle during this series, most of them receiving new prints.

This film would later be adapted into the Stephen Sondheim musical "A Little Night Music", which is fitting since even though Smiles is very much a movie visually, and uses exaggerated stings on the score to underscore certain jokes, it's got the feel of a play, especially in how it makes a jump to a new location for its second half and how the relationships have the feel of a set-up. And Bergman does like the talking; I felt morning subtitle fatigue a couple of times. The reliance on having characters talk to each other meant we didn't really get to see them do things together quite so often, and thus didn't get much of an idea of their chemistry. An early scene of Malcolm and Charlotte target-shooting while they talk gets how they relate across much more clearly and enjoyably than a lot of the other potential pairings.

Smiles is a fairly enjoyable comedy from a man whose contribution to world film often tended to be much more serious. The next film Bergman directed would be what is likely the work he's most known for, The Seventh Seal, the likes of which would come to overshadow this light, mainstream comedy. It's still an interesting part of Bergman's body of work, and a fairly enjoyable movie even without his name attached.

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