Ingmar Bergman's first smashing success, the film that then paved the way for him to make THE SEVENTH SEAL and WILD STRAWBERRIES, and from there, many other essential masterpieces, is one of his wittiest, brimming with subdued sensuality to the point it spills over causing you to blush, and as tormented as it given over to the voracious consumption of illicit passion. Bergman's own romantic pursuits are nearly the stuff of legend, but putting that aside, his comedy about adultery fits in comfortably with his most dramatic tragedies about death and despair. SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT is burdened with the guilt of sin as much as WINTER LIGHT is burdened by the crushing loneliness of its own cleric protagonist, but here Bergman balances the guilt with the payoff of love, as found wherever and however it may be.
"We invoke love, call out to it, beg for it, cry for it, try to mimic it. We think we own it and tell lies about it."
"But we don't have it."
"No my sugar pie. We are denied the love of loving. We don't have the gift."
"Nor the punishment."
A character refers to the three smiles of the summer night, once for the young lovers, once for the jesters and fools, and once for the sad and dejected. Through the course of the film, the night will indeed smile three times upon its characters, invoking three different ages of love, each in its own way, each to whom its destiny has been given. Why can't I be a young lover, one character asks. Because there are very few young lovers, so few you could count them, is her answer. Indeed, each lover wishes to be another, and the plot revolves around seduction, affairs, wives and mistresses, the changing nature of love, honor, and fidelity. The old lament that the young do not understand, cannot understand love, while the young long to be rid of their petty desires, or maybe Bergman is just pointing out the transient nature of jealousy - we want what we cannot have.
I suppose anyone who watches this film will have a different impression than the person beside them. How would I have thought differently if I had watched it with someone special, rather than alone? What if I had not recently reunited with someone I thought I had lost? What if I watched it a week ago, before the new year, when I was still holding on to my past regrets? This is all speculation, of course, but it serves to note how effectively Bergman dissects the elusiveness of his topic. Is sex just a young man's game, as our protagonist, Fredrik Egerman, remarks, while love belongs to the old and wise?
What is to be made of the marriage between the older Egerman and Anne, his 19-year old wife? Or of Egerman's son, Henrik, a clergyman, who begs God to remove his virtue so that he may be happy in his romance, which he calls sin? Bergman's Lutheran upbringing casts a shadow of guilt into the inspiration for many of his films, and SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT deals with this topic most fervently. Love, it seems, improves with age, yet also with age the curtains draw back and love is revealed for the frail illusion it is. A young man's fairytale, an old man's contentment. What of the women? Indeed I think of no other characters who so see through the games of romance than the actress and mistress of Frederik, Desiree Armfeltd and her nemesis Countess Charlotte Malcolm, who plot together a game of seduction against the men in their lives, a form of retribution for their infidelity, but also perhaps something to do to alleviate their boredom. Meanwhile the housemaid Petra finds love as quickly as she loses it. But that just makes it so much better for the next time, she explains to the young Anne, who finds herself swept up in the glorious rapture of young love, as much surprised that it is happening to her as she is that she enjoys it.
For all that it deals with guilt and sin, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT is, after all, a comedy of the sexes. Pitting men and women against each other and against themselves, Bergman can be cynical, appreciative and enlightening about love, sex and morality all at once. Wages are made, duels are offered, betrayals are traded like business transactions, but it all works out in the end. Is it because love trumps all? Or is it perhaps because love is fickle and unnecessary, or maybe still it is because romance is only what we make of it, its enjoyment equal to the extent of our talent for seduction. Does love waft and wane, come and go, or is it a permanent diagnosis? Bergman has a talent for intimacy, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. His stories are deeply personal, yes, but it is because he is able to avoid definition, to realize inner conflicts, dichotomous views on his subjects, that lends authenticity to this intimacy. I'm hard-pressed to find a character who is "right" or even one at least who is wrong. Love is at it is to each their own and the three smiles of the summer night, as different and varied as the seasons, are all encompassed in the hours between the dusk and the dawn.
Putting aside the subject matter for a rumination on Bergman's craft, what more can be said that hasn't been already? Anyone familiar with Bergman's work will expect nothing less than excellency, but it is surprising to see just how good Bergman already was this early in his career. Yes, he already had lots of experience, but it is his passion for directing theatre that might be the biggest influence on the craft displayed here. The film's second half plays out with all the dramatic intensity of a staged play where nothing is certain as we the audience are only privy to what we can see on stage. Our knowledge of the characters can only come from what they choose (or the writer chooses) to reveal, and as the plot winds through, our curiosity is teased and teased again as we learn each character's secrets, their plans, hidden from one another, whispered only to confidants. The finale pits two characters against each other in a game of Russian roulette, an intensely riveting scene, frightful in its implications, constructed perfectly for tension, yet still not the most worrisome suspense in the film. Indeed, it may simply be a distraction from the real stakes laying just outside the room where two lovers await the return or death of their betrayer.
As love is lost and found, wounded and repaired, the dawn comes at last and the effects of the summer's night wear off. Each character returns to their lives, having walked through a fire, purged of their sins, and rewarded with one another's affection. Should this cycle repeat itself? Perhaps. It seems however, that this is not the point. As temporary as passion is in Bergman's early masterpiece, it lingers still, and this is his gift to us: reassurance. Reassurance that love, however it may look, feel or reveal itself, is ours, be it for taking or giving, used as a weapon or a salve. Love is something very human indeed.