With summer fast approaching (which in Arizona means it’s a good time to stay inside and watch movies), The Criterion Collection is apparently marking the season with the release of two of Ingmar Bergman’s early features, Summer Interlude (1951) and Summer with Monika (1953), both out now on DVD and Blu-ray.
This was Bergman before he was the internationally acclaimed filmmaker of such classics as The Seventh Seal (1957), Persona (1966), and Fanny and Alexander (1982). Indeed, this was even the Bergman before Smiles of a Sumer Night, the film that in 1955 catapulted him to global cinematic stardom. Here, Bergman is somewhat lighter, and somewhat – but not much! – less profound. However, these two films are still notable for their seriousness, especially when you consider the frivolity that youth-oriented pictures are treated with today. They are introspective and realistic works that dispel the myths of youthful innocence while also reveling in the images and dreamlike nature of these moments of fleeting bliss.
Summer Interlude stars Maj-Britt Nilsson as a ballet dancer, and Summer with Monika features Harriet Andersson as the precarious titular character. Both were Bergman regulars, and both films, as the posters below indicate, were widely touted as exhibitions of young love and – especially the latter film – of scandalous eroticism. To be sure, the two actresses, particularly Andersson, were seductively alluring young women. But far from the sex romp these images seem to publicize, the two films are actually quite somber in their general tone. There are certainly moments of great joy and exuberance - these are the scenes associated with summer, a season of immense happiness in Bergman’s work (see the fond recollections of the elderly Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) in Wild Strawberries from 1957). The purity and pleasure of the characters is a charming spectacle, if slightly archaic in this cynical age. But the films gain their emotional impact when summer gives way to the literal and metaphoric fall. This is when the idyllic hopes and dreams and illusions of the carefree confront the realities of adolescent angst. This isn’t some mumblecore melodrama though; it’s not even Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Despite their early placement in Bergman’s oeuvre, Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika are all the same still imbued with a notable melancholy, a crisis bordering on the spiritual that would be a trademark of the director’s later films.
Summer Interlude is told in flashback as Marie (Nilsson) looks back on an event from her youth – an ephemeral flirtation with student Henrik (Birger Malmsten). Over the course of one fateful summer, their foray into young love becomes shattered by a freak accident and the misfortune affects her in ways she only seems to realize in the present day. As she recalls the tragic incident that transpired, and the magical summer that surrounded it, she is haunted by the recollection.
Summer with Monika features Harry, played by Lars Ekborg, as the eager partner of the film’s free-wheeling and mischievous heroine. Bored with their provincial and tedious life, and naively sensing that a better world exists elsewhere, they leave their jobs and family and set off on a whirlwind romance, oblivious to any negative repercussions. Reality is quick to set in for Harry though, and when the two head back home, get married, and attempt a life of domesticity, they are struck by the incongruous nature of their relationship.
While each of these films have more than their fair share of merits, they really only hint at what was to come for Ingmar Bergman. If they were made by any other director, Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika would probably stand as unquestioned masterpieces; arguably the latter still ranks as one of the filmmaker’s best, most loved features. Now released in stellar transfers (par for the course when it comes to Criterion), both are nevertheless wondrous achievements that deserve their distinguished place in film history.