Wednesday 3 September 2008

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Yep, this is Ingmar Bergman making a romantic comedy, but just because it's light and fluffy doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of meaning behind everything that goes on. Early on the lead actress in a play talks about love being something found in the head, the heart and the loins, and this is the key to the film. All the characters have live that revolve around love, but none of them seems to do so in all three ways, at least not to the same person.

Opening credits notwithstanding, the focus of the story is Fredrik Egerman, a lawyer played by Bergman regular Gunner Björnstrand. He's been married for two years to Anne, a young and beautiful wife that he hasn't slept with yet. His first wife died and in between marriages he had many dalliances, not least two years with an actress called Desiree Armfeldt, the one speaking of love in the play. He had a son from his first wife, who is now a man, one about to enter the church but far too sensitive and emotional for that. Young Henrik is tortured by love, wich he has in different ways, for his father's young wife and his equally young maid Petra. Both, in different ways and for different reasons, seem to return that love.

Fleshing out the story, pun very much intended, are Count and Countess Malcolm. The Count is a military man and a player at the game of love. Desiree is his mistress now, something that he is completely open about, even to his wife, and he has a bizarre sense of honour that keeps him faithful to both wife and mistress. When Egerman visits Desiree, just before the Count does precisely the same thing, it sparks a whole slew of consequences, given that the Countess is friends with Anne Egerman. Now we realise why Björnstrand was fifth credited. Just like love, it appears be all about the men but it's really all about the women and they have plenty of plans.

Ingmar Bergman is a name that invokes special attention. Of all those people who carry the description of great directors of the world, his has a tendency to find its way to the top. Woody Allen mentions him a lot, both by name and by reference. Martin Scorsese talked in a documentary about how when he was at film school everyone maintained shrines to Bergman. I presume he was talking metaphorically but it would ring true if he were being literal. And so, like anyone or anything so lauded, I tend to walk in with apprehension. Maybe it's that traditional English support of the underdog, but I have a tendency to look for hidden gems and because acknowledged masterpieces tend not to be hidden, I tend to find flaws in a lot of them. I think it's a truism that a lot of people rate things highly just because everyone else rates them highly. What I'm far less prepared for is when everyone else is right.

Bergman tends to be a place where everyone else tends to be right. He has a reputation for depth and meaning so you'd expect him to be dull and boring. At the very least he must be an acquired taste, like poetry, which would be a good comparison especially given titles like Smiles of a Summer Night. However none of this is really the case, this one being frothier than most of his work that I've seen but none of it being dull and boring at all. And however frothy this one gets, it doesn't lose either its sparkle or its depth. That's a fine balancing act to manage: sparkle and depth at the same time but it's where I'm learning Bergman spent much of his career.

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