Summer with Monika (1953)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 36min

Ingmar Bergman treads familiar ground in the tragic tale of one young Swedish couple’s idyllic summer fling, and yet there is something about Summer with Monika which goes down even smoother than many of his previous ill-fated love stories. Perhaps its laidback pacing can be given some credit for this, dispensing with his usual flashback structure to meet Harry and Monika at their most innocent and linger in their escape to the Stockholm archipelago. Maybe it is also Harriet Andersson’s remarkable debut film performance, the best in any Bergman film at this point, utterly charming us with warmth, poignancy, and honest expressions of sexuality. Certainly though a large portion of this film’s humble beauty can be traced back to the sensitivity of his visual artistry, studying the expressive contours of the actors’ faces in close-up and gracefully traversing their city and island homes.

Rocky coastlines and oceans winding around these young lovers in gorgeous long shots.
Bergman blocks his actors’ faces like few others in film history, and his camera is especially drawn to Andersson’s face throughout Summer with Monika.

With the city’s infrastructure and rivers forming a backdrop to the early stages of Harry and Monika’s relationship, Bergman borrows a few neorealist qualities from the Italians, mounting pressures on both in their individual lives. The camera uneasily hides with a small child behind a wagon wheel as Monika’s father stumbles drunkenly from the local pub with his friends, and though he seems to be in a good mood for the moment, there is still suspense back home as his family carefully walks on eggshells. Slowly, the camera tracks to the side where it settles on Monika’s face anxiously anticipating an outburst – which of course arrives the moment she snaps at him to stop standing on her new shoes.

Meanwhile at Harry’s job, he is visually hemmed in by colleagues criticising his work ethic, and Bergman further crowds the shot with a handsomely constructed composition of glassware lined across its foreground. With the men around him dissipating, Harry’s decisive resignation in this moment feels truly freeing, even seeing him cheekily push one of those glasses off its shelf.

An inspired arrangement of the frame, pressing men in on Harry from the background, and the set dressing from the foreground.

In the surrounding Swedish islands where both seek refuge, city views are replaced with rocky coastlines and oceans, turning this gorgeous rural scenery into their new home. There are plenty of long shots here that Bergman lavishes upon them, framing them within the gentle curve of seashores and atop a pier as they slow dance at dusk, and as he moves his camera closer, they are infused even more with their surroundings. Still landscapes are disrupted by their faces rapidly moving into the foreground, and their silhouetted reflections ripple in ponds like natural extensions of the environment.

Long shots of Sweden’s islands ruptured by faces suddenly entering the frame – playful blocking from Bergman.
Looking up at the sky via reflections in a pond, where Andersson’s own silhouette ripples in the water.
A dilapidated boathouse, a lone dinghy, and a wooden pier reflected in the water – a quiet, romantic composition for Monika and Harry as they slow dance together.

Within the context of the 1950s, Andersson’s intermittent onscreen nudity was considered particularly transgressive, though within this ‘Paradise’ it also carries implications of an Adam and Eve-type fable, much like Summer Interlude from two years earlier. This is a romance that is allowed the time and space develop without external pressures, and Bergman’s close-ups of their faces resting against each other intimately expresses that delicate sentiment.

The appearance of Monika’s jealous ex-boyfriend to destroy their boat though effectively serves the same role as the allegorical snake, bringing moral corruption to the islands where they bask in their simple lives. Small arguments arise as time languidly drifts on, and soon they realise that their days of shirking responsibility are coming to an end. “We have to make something real out of our lives,” Harry ponders, though neither he nor Monika are particularly well-equipped to handle the soul-sucking drudgery of adulthood. Unlike the sudden deaths of previous Bergman melodramas, the downfall of these lovers simply comes through those rites of passage one must shoulder in a society of strict moral standards. Settling down, having babies, the woman staying home as the man goes to work – it is a contrived dynamic that they never had to consider as runaways, and which now wears away at their own self-identities, love, and happiness.

Divisions drawn in the mise-en-scène, with faces at different depths in the frame. Bitter disconnection rendered visually between the two lovers.

Divisions are drawn in the mise-en-scène as their quarrels turn into vicious arguments, and even the bars of their bed frame become oppressive visual obstructions when a fight turns into physical abuse. Yet amid such tragic conflict, Bergman still finds the time to hang on his empathetic close-ups, once capturing their tender love, though now only finding melancholy isolation. When Harry comes home and catches Monika in the middle of an affair, we don’t even get a reverse shot of what he is seeing, but instead we simply linger on his seething dismay. Later after they have separated and all their possessions are being carried out, he catches his own reflection in a mirror and almost seems to stare right at us, as Bergman dissolves into all the memories of their summer paradise.

Bergman shaping Lars Ekborg’s face in close-up through shadows as he wistfully reminisces the romance he has lost.

Easily the strongest and most memorable shot from Summer with Monika is that which hangs on Andersson’s sad, prolonged gaze for over thirty seconds, letting her lock eyes with the camera while she slowly puffs on a cigarette. Though she is sitting in a club next to the man she is cheating with, she clearly feels no emotional investment in any of it, as Bergman gradually tracks in on her passive face and dims the background lighting into complete darkness where she is totally isolated. Jaunty jazz music keeps playing, but there is no joy to be found anymore. Bergman guarantees the loss of innocence in his characters’ lives as sure as seasonal changes, and it is in that contrast of light nostalgia against the demoralising fatigue of urban living where he sinks in a poignant recognition of what modern society has so cruelly stolen from its youth.

Maybe the single strongest shot in the film. Andersson locks eyes with the camera in close-up, which tracks forward as the background lighting dims.

Summer with Monika is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.


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