Monday, May 28, 2012

The Light I Never Knowed

Ingmar Bergman is not a filmmaker I find it especially easy to associate with summer. This despite the fact that, for the filmmaker not only of Smiles of a Summer Night, but Winter Light and Autumn Sonata, seasons were important (why no Spring? I know, The Virgin Spring, I thought of that, but it turns out he's talking about something else there). But typically, my approach to Bergman's films, and to the films of almost any other director with a deep catalogue, is to pick and choose what seems most interesting to me. This lack of any kind of deliberate approach has left me with the possibly not entirely accurate view of Ingmar Bergman's films as medieval and wintry and angry at a God he doesn't believe in, despairing when they're not being terrifying. Even the comic Smiles of a Summer Night has stuff about suicide in there. So the upcoming release by Criterion of Bergman's tenth and twelfth films, respectively, Summer Interlude from 1951 and Summer With Monika from 1953, left me wondering about this presumably sunny side of Bergman with which I had been previously unaware.

Well, I needn't have worried. While there are long stretches in both films depicting -- even, if you like, celebrating -- young love and freedom and happiness, both also ultimately deal with the death of romance. Not just romance as in between a young man and a young woman, but in the naive beliefs that such men and women sometimes have that they are different from everyone else, that their lives will be special. That makes Summer Interlude and Summer With Monika sound cruel, and they sort of are, but Bergman is not out to gleefully obliterate anyone's dreams. He's just acknowledging that those dreams will probably be obliterated.

In Summer Interlude, Maj-Britt Nilsson plays Marie, an accomplished ballerina who is at the tail end of rehearsals for a production of Swan Lake when she receives in the mail a package containing the diary of Henrik (Berger Malmsten), a young man she loved for a brief time when they were both very young. She doesn't know who sent the diary, but it becomes pretty clear that it didn't come from Henrik, and that, in fact, there may no longer be a Henrik. Far from delighted, Marie falls into a melancholic revery that leads her to travel back to the lakeside spot where she and Henrik had been together, and where, also, she spent time with her Uncle Erland (Georg Funkquist), an "uncle" not by blood but by family friendship, a man whose relationship with Marie's deceased mother was, as far as Erland and Erland only was concerned, transcended mere friendship, and he seems to want to translate that gnawing desire to Marie. The bulk of the film is told in flashback, and charts the passionate yet mostly innocent relationship between Marie and Henrik as it would naturally play out, the frustration of their first fight being a moment of high drama here.

Summer Interlude is largely pleasant, though the sadness of the older Marie is never far away, but in Bergman terms it is a lighter, sweeter film than I, at least, am used to. What takes me aback about the film is how the end comes about, and how sudden and senseless and arbitrary it is. What happens in Summer Interlude, and what causes Marie, at Erland's rather appallingly devious suggestion, to erect an emotional wall around herself, is the kind of thing that must happen, somewhere, every day, but can have the effect on film of seeing simply too absurd to be accepted. But Bergman plays it as something entirely real that must be dealt with, somehow. At Summer Interlude's end, Marie is shown dealing both with her current boyfriend (Alf Kjellin) and this distant tragedy whose very nature makes it nearly impossible to keep at bay. In the final moments, Marie has either succeeded, or perhaps Bergman is anticipating the ending of Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! Either one makes sense.
Summer With Monika, meanwhile, is a bit more obviously bitter. Not necessarily in any sort of personal way, but it's a bitter story. Based on a novel by Per Anders Fogelström, the title character is played winningly, initially, by Harriet Andersson (in the first of many performances for Bergman) as a fun, slightly goofy, young woman whose home life consists of a half dozen people living in maybe two rooms, most of them young, loud children, Monika's siblings, their mother no longer having the energy to control them much, though she's willing to control Monika because she, at least, is old enough to obey. Throw in a drunken father and a job at a grocery store where she is repeatedly groped by various men, and it's a wonder Monika has any brightness left within her at all. She meets and charms a shy young man named Henry (Lars Ekborg). His father is still alive, but his mother has died, and he lives with his aunt, and he works at job that seems to mainly consist of boxing up and delivering glassware. His boss and co-workers are hard on him, and it becomes very easy for him to be swept up in Monika's pursuit for freedom, which leads them both to taking a boat and sailing off alone, from secluded beach to secluded beach, eating what they find, a little of what they bring with them, have sex, and in general bask in the sun and the wind and their youth.

A key scene in Summer With Monika, one that seems quite lovely when you first see it, shows Harry and Monika docking near an outdoor party. Monika wants to dance, but Harry is uncomfortable around these other people, possibly not only because of his natural shyness, but because they are a part of the world they're both trying to get away from. So taking pity on him, Monika agrees to leave, and so they take their boat to another dock, this one empty and some distance from the party, but not so far that they can't hear the music. Bergman shoots them from a distance, dancing together and alone, which is all they want. But Harry is 18 years old and Monika is 19, which is just about the right age to still think this pipe dream of dropping happily off the grid might not end in disaster. Before that happens, Monika mentions in a breathtakingly offhand way that she is pregnant. She thinks this will all work out swimmingly, but in mere days she's complaining that all they eat anymore are mushrooms, and shortly after that she's stealing roasts right off people's dinner tables.

It's Harry and Monika's return to society, which they manage with a minimum of shame and with, at least as far as Harry's concerned, a determination to work and make their own way in the world, that signals the true end of it all. Monika becomes an awful creature, one delighted by the idea of motherhood but horrified by the reality, one who cheats on her husband because he makes her save money and she's bored. Watching Harry's life come apart is very difficult because he's a decent kid who is only dumb in the way that all kids are, but he's willing to learn. Monika is not at all willing. Bergman may want us to take pity on Monika as well, but I myself found that I had very little pity to offer her. I cared only for Harry, and for his baby daughter. Harry closes the film sadly remembering the wonderful part of the summer with Monika that just passed. I'd like to shake him and demand that he let it go, but Bergman himself had it more clearly. In an interview with himself printed in the Criterion booklet, Bergman says that if we must reduce Summer With Monika to a message, about the good things in youth that end up horribly wrong, which is to say, about youth, he chooses these four words which he indicates are from Fogelström's novel: Get out! But return!

More enigmatically, though, Bergman asks himself about any "beautiful moments from the shooting of the film," and Bergman's response (to himself, remember) is one that describes his film in a nutshell, and adds one last thing that perhaps could count as something Harry should bear in mind:

One morning at six o'clock, we were on our way to location, the engine of our little boat, the Viola of Ornö, thumping across the still waters. The horizon at sea fused with the sky, the islets stood like floating octopuses in all that soft white. Up above, the fiery button of the sun was burning. It was warm and unusually still; there wasn't even a swell, not a ripple. It was like eternity itself. It was like being in eternity. The smell of the sea, the quivering in the hull, the murmur around around the stem, and the high silence -- the summer of eternity.


Nothing. That was it.

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