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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Realtionships > Foreign > Sweden > Sexuality > Summer Interlude (1951)/Summer With Monika (1953/Ingmar Bergman/Criterion Blu-rays)

Summer Interlude (1951)/Summer With Monika (1953/Ingmar Bergman/Criterion Blu-rays)


Picture: A     Sound: B+     Extras: D/B+     Films: A



Too often exciting, controversial, or subversive films that inspire new modes of creation and viewership become, after decades of adoring adulation and intertextual quotation, white elephants bloated by their reputations.  Ingmar Bergman's films have certainly befallen this fate.  The Seventh Seal, for example, has been so quoted, parodied, and picked clean that it's nearly impossible to watch today solely for its beauty and solemnity — we're too busy ticking off moments of pop culture metastasization.


Bergman's Summer Interlude, from 1951, and Summer with Monika, from 1953, were turning points for the filmmaker that earned their cineaste bonafides by doing nothing less than inspiring the French New Wave.  (In 1958, Jean-Luc Godard, writing in the publication Arts, called Ingmar Bergman's 1951 film Summer Interlude "the most beautiful of films.") But unlike Important films such as The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika aren't as well known and, for far too long, have been unavailable or unseen in their original cuts. (In the U.S., Monika has been primarily known for its '50s grindhouse re-edit, Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl!, courtesy of exploitation master Kroger Babb.)  But in late May, the Criterion Collection released the films in excellent, unadulterated Blu-Ray presentations.  Watching them now, with 60 years of cinematic history between viewer and films, is like taking two hits of pure oxygen. You're left rejuvenated and euphoric by their beauty and daring and wide eyed by the scope of their influence, not only on the New Wave but on an entire generation of filmmaking.


Of the two, Summer with Monika is the most apparently influential.  Its tale of two young Swedes, Harry (Harriet Andersson) and Monika (Lars Ekborg), who escape post-war Stockholm and their hardscrabble working lives for an uninhibited summer on the archipelago, only to have their idyll punctured by natural, urban, and biological realities, is punctuated by perhaps the most famous 30 seconds in cinema.  Monika, who is cheating on her husband and shirking her responsibilities as a mother, flirts lewdly with a complete stranger in a club when she lights her cigarette, turns, and stares directly at the audience for half a minute.


This act of defiance — Monika challenging us to judge her, Bergman challenging the cinematic establishment to stop him — was a signal moment for filmmakers like Godard and Francois Truffaut.  The fourth wall was down and anything was possible. Godard directly references this shot in Breathless, and the spirit of it (and Monika) permeates many of the early New Wave films.  Indeed, Summer with Monika feels like a blueprint for the New Wave, and Godard's films especially. Monika's energy anticipates Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie and Brigitte Bardot in Contempt (see most of these titles reviewed elsewhere on this site) Monika and Harry's love-on-the-run affair is a precursor to Pierrot le fou (as well as Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, itself a product of New Wave influence), and the urban domestic hell that dictates the lovers' lives resounds in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.


Summer Interlude lacks Monika's moment-that-launched-a-revolution, which in part has allowed Monika to subsume Interlude in a discussion of Bergman's films, but it is no less influential.  Its story of a doomed summer romance between aspiring dancer Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and unworldly student Henrik (Birger Malmsten), told in flashback by an older, world-weary Marie, is perhaps more conventional but distinguished by Bergman's daring direction (seemingly influenced by Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes). A shot of older Marie in close up with half of her face cut off by the right side of the screen points the way to Vertigo, while the modernist misé-en-scene of the dance numbers and the dislocation of characters in relationship to one another anticipate Last Year at Marienbad (out in an exceptional Blu-ray from Criterion).  Then there's the proto-Bergman on display: A chess game between a priest and a dying woman where, the priest says, death feels present; long shots of silhouettes on the horizon; a deep reservoir of existentialism; the secret life of the theater.


Bergman lays the foundation for his later triumphs in Summer Interlude, and in that way it's a film that sketches out the parameters of his acclaimed career. (According to the Criterion notes, Bergman considered this film a creative turning point.)  But it's more than a dry run — of his future work, or of Monika. The film is simple, perhaps, when viewed today, but it's beauty is complex and staggering. Moments in the Stockholm ballet theater recall Degas' celebration of dancers — one shot, near the end of the film, of petite Marie standing on pointe to kiss her tall boyfriend is particularly wonderful — as well as the melancholy of Ivan Le Lorraine Albright's 1929 painting "There Were No Flowers Tonight."  When the film shifts to the sunny island summer long past, scenes are composed with such verve and joy that to return to the autumnal discontent of the present is wrenching and painful.


This is as much a testament to Bergman as it is his cinematographer, Gunnar Fischer, who also shot Monika, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and a number of other Bergman films.  His black-and-white photography is exquisite, accentuating the natural beauty of the islands and archipelago — as well as of Maj-Britt Nilsson and Harriet Andersson — and deftly playing it off the squalor of man-made Stockholm and characters' interior emotional prisons.  Nilsson and Andersson would be exciting and devastating in these films without Fischer's camera — Nilsson's capacity to play both sides of Marie (boundlessly enthusiastic youth, beaten-down repressed older woman) is stunning, as is Andersson's transformation from wild free spirit (a kind of proto-hippie) to feral island creature to an hardened urban sexpot.  But Fischer pulls so much from their faces, eyes, bodies, gestures, and movements that they become iconic.


As are these films.  By now it's passé to say that Criterion has done a service to film lovers and movie watchers by releasing this, that, or the other.  But Criterion has given us a real gift in finally making Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika available in such pristine quality.  Not only can the films be seen, where before you had to hope to catch them in one-off screenings or in a Bergman retrospective, but the conversation about Bergman as a filmmaker can, finally, expand.  Critics and scholars have long written about the beauty of his films and how his work goes beyond the pop culture clichés of The Seventh Seal.  By filling in early-career gap in Bergman's home video oeuvre represented by Interlude and Monika, the casual filmgoer can be a part of that discussion now, too.  If, that is, they can come down from the high of watching these films.


As you would expect from a Criterion release, both films get a flawless technical presentation.  They look incredible — better than they ever have on home video. Blacks are deep, grays are crisp, and whites are clean.  The restoration work put into the films also accentuates the brilliance of Fischer's cinematography — you can see pores and makeup in close ups, you can discern individual rocks on the archipelago shores, sun gleams brilliantly off of watery surfaces.  Interlude does have some scratching and soft spots, but this is due to Criterion having to patch together source materials for the restoration.  Still, they're negligible and do nothing to deter from the film.  Monika looks as good as it possibly could — the nearly 60-year-old film looks like it could have shot made yesterday while retaining its tactile celluloid qualities.  Sound-wise, these are dialogue films so your home theater system isn't likely to get a workout.  But the moments of ambient, natural noise — an owl hooting, water crashing on a shore, a boat rocking while in dock — are subtle and clear.


Also par for the Criterion course, Monika is an extras-laden disc.  It includes a trailer; a new interview between Bergman expert Peter Cowie and Monika herself, Harriet Andersson; a 30-minute documentary, Images from the Playground, of Bergman at work made up of behind-the-scene footage from the making of Monika; a feature on Kroger Babb and the exploitation of Monika; and a Bergman introduction to the film recorded in 2003 by SVT Svensk Television.  The booklet features an essay by Laura Hubner, a 1958 review by Godard, and a publicity piece in which Bergman interviews himself.  All are excellent and expand our understanding of the film and its historical context.


But the Summer Interlude disc is another story.  There are no features on it.  No trailer, no documentary, no commentary, nothing.  All it boasts is an essay by Cowie. This is a real disservice to this film.  It deserves at the very least some of the historical grounding Criterion does so well on other releases.  Still, it's hard to argue with the restoration work put into it.  Perhaps in that respect Summer Interlude is its own special feature.



-   Dante A. Ciampaglia


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