Once I decided that I would cover mainly Swedish cinema for A Fistful of Film, one of the first thoughts that entered my head was “when are you gonna cover Bergman and where do you start?” Without a doubt the most internationally renowned and influential Swedish filmmaker who’s ever lived, it might’ve seemed obvious to start the series with a Bergman film, and perhaps that would’ve given us more readers right from the start. But one of the things I want to do with Show Me Cinema is to show another side of Swedish cinema that isn’t Bergmanesque dramas, hence why I chose Bo Widerberg’s The Man on the Roof as my first official piece. And don’t misunderstand me, I love me some Bergman (Persona and Wild Strawberries are two of the best films I’ve ever seen) but it seemed too obvious to start off, so I went with a slightly unconventional start. And when the time came to decide what Bergman film to start things off with, I contemplated “should I start with Seventh Seal? Maybe Cries and Whispers? Or a genre film like Hour of the Wolf?” but then I remembered “oh yeah, Bergman made a comedy!” So my first Ingmar Bergman film for Show Me Cinema will be his comedy of manners from 1955: Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende).
Bergman reportedly started writing the film whilst going through one of the most depressing periods in his life (I know, Bergman being depressed what a shocker). His relationship with SF Studios was on the rocks, as was his personal relationship with actress Harriet Anderson, he suffered many financial troubles and he only weighed 125 pounds (roughly 56 kg for us non-Americans). Bergman reportedly considered suicide, but decided that he would write a comedy, and if it didn’t work out, he would most definitely kill himself. Nevertheless, the studio were unhappy with the fact that it was a period piece, they thought it was unfunny and the film was shot over a summer heatwave. Just the backstory for the film sounds like your average Bergman film.
So how does the dreary and existential Bergman fare in the genre of comedy? Very well I must say. Although I wasn’t exactly laughing out loud the entire runtime (nothing comes close to beating the “Well, does God exist?” line from Wild Strawberries as the funniest Bergman moment), I was constantly smiling and chuckling because of the excellent writing, dialogue and acting. The script is filled with lines with multiple layers of wit, sarcasm and cynicism, which strikes me as very Swedish for some reason. I wish I could recite them all to you, but then we’d be here all day long as I’d just quote the entire film. Desirée, an actress, visits her mother and says “For once, I was truly innocent”, to which her mother replies “it must have been early in the morning.” These lines may not be so funny out of context but within the film they’re literal gold.
But don’t let the comedic overtone fool you, there’s still plenty of Bergmanesque existentialism to go around. Throughout the whole film characters double cross, undermine and lie to each other. There’s also the character of Henry, son of protagonist Fredrik, who studies to become a minister but can’t help his unrequited passion for his father’s new and younger wife Anne. He constantly questions himself, his worth and his entire purpose in life. As someone who struggled with this just recently, I could relate very well to this character. The film also includes a pivotal scene set to Russian roulette and another where a character attempts suicide, which doesn’t exactly strike one as classical comedy material, but in the hands of Bergman it works.
If there is a weakness in the film I’d say that I think it takes a little too long to get to where it’s going, and I would say that makes it a somewhat uneven piece. The way the film functions is basically a two-act structure, with the first act functioning as a set-up to all the character relationships and the second act functions as what will become resolution to the story. During the film I kept thinking of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and how perhaps Bergman should’ve followed in Renoir’s footsteps and set the majority of the film in the mansion. I think there are ways in which Bergman could have shortened the earlier scenes and move the majority of the action to the mansion so it could be slightly more even. But as it is, we don’t get to the mansion until the roughly sixty minute mark in a 108 minute long film.
Still, Smiles of a Summer Night is still a really enjoyable film and is interesting in the way it’s one of Bergman’s lightest yet also darkest works. I think if you’re looking for a good entry point into Bergman that isn’t The Seventh Seal or Persona or Wild Strawberries, I’d say this might be a good place to start.