To the outside world, Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) seems an enviable man. A well-to-do lawyer in early twentieth century Sweden, he’s been married to a much younger woman, Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), for the past two years. But the Egermans have a secret: They have yet to consummate their marriage. Fredrik wants to give the nineteen-year-old Anne time to mature, time to grow comfortable and cease fearing him, yet he can’t help feeling frustrated with this state of affairs, especially as he suspects that she only sees him as a father figure. His son from his first marriage, Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam), is about the same age as Anne, which only makes Fredrik more ill at ease.
He ends up confiding in Desirée Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck), a popular actress and, in the years following his first wife’s death, his mistress. Their relationship is a rather contentious one, but after she breaks up with her current lover, Count Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), Desirée sets about winning Frederik back for herself and resolving various related romantic woes. In order to accomplish this, she invites all of the interested parties to her mother’s (Naima Wifstrand) estate: Frederik; Anne; Henrik, a serious and tormented aspiring clergyman; Count Malcolm, wildly jealous of his mistresses but indifferent toward his wife; and Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), the long-suffering Countess Malcolm. Once everyone is under the same roof, it’s only a matter of time before sparks start to fly.
Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night was the product of a dark period in the director’s life, as explained in an essay by John Simon:
What do you do when you are thoroughly miserable? A serious love affair is over, and a marriage to a wonderful woman is ending. Two of your films have bombed at the box office, and the head of your production company says he will ax you if you make another unmarketable drama. Your finances are extremely meager, but your body is even thinner, down to a measly 125 pounds. You have constant stomach pains and think you are dying of cancer (though later a specialist will determine that it is all psychosomatic). And you have a group of players who have been acting together for years and need a summer project. If you are Ingmar Bergman, you write a comedy.
He said it succinctly himself to a group of students at Southern Methodist University: ‘This was a terrible time in my life, and I was extremely depressed. So I said, “Why not make a film just for fun?” I went away to Switzerland and had two alternatives: write Smiles of a Summer Night or kill myself.’ How lucky for him and us that he picked the former.
Playful and lighthearted though it is in many respects — it even features a bed that moves from one room to another with the push of a button — Smiles of a Summer Night‘s themes would not be out of place in one of Bergman’s more dramatic movies. Henrik, for instance, feels burdened by his own virtue when everyone around him seems to be reveling in vice; Fredrik, selfish by nature, has learned to make sacrifices for Anne, though not without a struggle; Charlotte is torn between hatred for her philandering husband and a perverse desire to have him entirely to herself. Things never get too heavy for too long, but it’s not exactly escapist fluff either.
At a number of points throughout the film, I found myself thinking of Shakespeare, particularly the mixed up lovers of A Midsummer Night‘s Dream. Lusty servant Frid (Åke Fridell), offering commentary on the three types of people for whom the summer night smiles, would also be well-suited to one of the Bard’s comedies, and Desirée’s elderly but spirited mother adds a touch of magic when she serves her guests a wine with “secret seductive powers. Whoever drinks hereof does so at his own risk and must answer for himself.” Most importantly, Bergman’s film, like Shakespeare’s plays, uses its diverse cast of characters both to entertain and to convey a wide range of human experience.
This post is part of the 2016 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.