Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 48min

Over the centuries of stories based around Europe’s Midsummer festivities, there has often been a dreamy magic hanging in the air between lovers on its strange, shortened night, reconsidering old passions and finding new beginnings within its otherworldly aura. Most famously, it is the setting upon which Shakespeare’s ensemble of characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream fall under the love spells of the forest fey. Its influence on Ingmar Bergman’s lusty romp Smiles of a Summer Night is evident right there in the name, though this is no direct adaptation of the Bard’s fantastical comedy. Class satire runs sharply through Bergman’s targeting of wealthy aristocrats, bringing them down to the level of the carefree servants who roll around in fields and blithely indulge in their carnal passions. Although there are no whimsical forces guiding these self-conceited characters into each other’s arms, it very much feels that way to those wrapped up in its intoxicating atmosphere.

Before we even arrive at this fateful Midsummer party, Bergman lays out the formal groundwork of each character, examining their place in this intricate web. Several of his regular collaborators are here – Gunnar Björnstrand as successful lawyer Fredrik, Eva Dahlbeck as his ex-lover Desiree, and Harriet Andersson as his housemaid Petra. Jarl Kulle and Margit Carlqvist are also present, both having taken more minor roles in previous Bergman films, and now being given more screen time as Desiree’s consort, Count Carl-Magnus, and his wife, Countess Charlotte. It is near impossible to pick the greatest performance among them. Björnstrand may claim the largest role, but with Andersson’s swaying hips, Dahlbeck’s shrewd scheming, and Kulle’s comical turns of phrase, each actor stands out during their time in the spotlight.

Bergman features one of his signature shots here – the parallel faces lying down, one obscuring the other.
Bergman is an actor’s director, and not just in guiding their performances. He blocks and lights their faces to perfection, emphasising their expressive eyes and shrouding them in darkness when the scene calls for it.

Like so many others, Kulle’s Count lacks total integrity, in one moment threatening that “One can rally with my wife, but touch my mistress and I’m a tiger!” and later inverting it when it is the Countess who he is at risk of losing. The extreme moods of these characters shift with the whims of their desire, filling them with jealousy, anger, and passion, but very little substance. Desiree even shows some self-awareness of this while arguing with Fredrik, digging herself deeper into a rage that she can’t remember the reason for.

“I’m speaking! I will speak, even if I have nothing to say! You’ve made so furious, that I forgot what I was thinking!”

Bergman relishes working with a large ensemble, as the relationships he draws between each individual emerges in his blocking.

Petra on the other hand is the most easy-going character of the bunch, right next to Desiree’s servant, Frid. There is something of a bohemian nature to both as they laugh and merrily recite poetry, which any of their masters might brush off as silly behaviour. “The summer night has three smiles,” Frid starts. “This is the first, between midnight and dawn, when young lovers open their hearts and loins.” The second comes “for the jesters, the fools, and the incorrigible” – perhaps Petra and Frid themselves, who bask in the glory of life while the others engage in petty games and affairs.

“And the summer night smiled for the third time!” he finally announces as the sun rises, “for the sad and dejected, for the sleepless and lost souls, for the frightened and the lonely.” Bergman proves his hand as a skilled comedic writer in Smiles of a Summer Night, and yet in littering his screenplay with such thoughtful reflections he also deepens its joyful wonder, stepping back to observe these tiny figures within the context of something far grander than they realise.

Petra and Frid are light, easygoing counterparts to the complicated romances of the upper classes. Bergman mostly plays out their storyline in the bright open air, in contrast to the dark interiors where affairs and betrayals unfold.

This isn’t to say that Bergman himself is not willing to engage with their trivial drama though. His usual flair for blocking actors using a remarkable depth of field serves a practical purpose here in teasing out the complex web of betrayals, seductions, and alliances at play. Eavesdroppers lurk behind doors in the foreground, listening to private conversations in the next room over, while elsewhere delicate romances flourish in the reflections of ornately framed mirrors and quiet ponds. Unlike many of his previous films which frequently focus on one or two characters per shot, the ensemble dynamic here often forces his camera out into wides rather than close-ups, making for ripe stylistic and narrative comparisons to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.

An eavesdropper lurks in the foreground, as a conversation plays out through this dark doorframe.
A playful romance caught in the exquisite reflection of the courtyard’s pond.

Bergman capitalises particularly well on this staging at the Midsummer’s Eve dinner party, where Desiree herself plots to manipulate specific relationships based on her seating arrangements. It is an elaborately Gothic set piece in its design, framing characters between melted candelabras, and shrinking them behind a cluttered banquet table of flowers, fruit, bowls, and decorative ornaments. It is also the perfect setting for couples to start breaking apart at the seams – a discussion over whether men or woman are better seducers sets in motion the Countess’ plot to ensnare Fredrik, while he observes his own marriage to 19-year-old Anne crumble as she falls for his son, Henrik. His head laying on the table and her comforting hand on his shoulder are the first things we will notice in this shot, and yet Bergman is sure to block Fredrik’s resentful expression lurking right behind them, signalling a subtle shift in his affection for her.

The cluttered dining scene makes for an absolutely ravishing set piece. Melted candelabras, goblets, and platters of food obstruct frames, within which Bergman arranges his actors into spectacular compositions.

The eventual consummation of this young, scandalous love comes as a whimsically fated development, shedding that mysterious Midsummer magic of Shakespeare’s play over their unexpected encounter. An earlier reveal of a secret lever which wheels in a bed from a neighbouring room returns by pure chance, as when Henrik attempts suicide over his attraction to his stepmother, he accidentally activates it. Perhaps in this loose take on Shakespeare’s play, Bergman himself is playing the role of the mischievous sprite Puck through his behind-the-scenes manipulations, as who else should be laying in that bed at that exact time but the one Henrik has been longing for? To him, it could very well be a dying vision, while to the slowly waking Anne, it is a sensual dream. Still, that tiny nudge from the universe is all it takes for them to elope, creating a knock-on effect which neatly ties up the remaining strings Bergman has been slyly pulling this whole time.

Long dissolves are well-suited to this reinterpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whimsically and dreamily bridging one scene to the next.

“Love is a loathsome business,” Anne piercingly proclaims to the Countess at one point, and the suffering it entails for those who corrupt its purity certainly frame it as such. Much like the game of croquet the upper-class men play on the lawn, it turns “an innocent game into an offensive battle of prestige,” wherein each player keeps one-upping the others until egos and relationships are destroyed. On a night such as Midsummer’s Eve though, the universe seems to be resetting itself by way of playful chaos to make way for fresh new starts, and such grievances need not last long. Even beyond its class satire and complex characters, Bergman buries a profound wisdom deep in Smiles of a Summer Night, blessing his noble fools and foolish nobles alike with second chances that let them simultaneously embrace new possibilities, and learn to appreciate those they had forgotten.

Smiles of a Summer Night is currently streaming The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.


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