Ingmar Bergman's Summer Interlude / Summer With Monika (Criterion)

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five):

Summer Interlude *** 1/2
Summer with Monika **** 1/2 

Watching Ingmar Bergman’s Summer Interlude and Summer With Monika back-to-back has somewhat conflated the two films in my head. The films explore young love during the titular season and both are set in the wind-swept dreamland of Stockholm’s outer archipelago. However, there’s a sharp line that divides the Bergman of Interlude from the Bergman of Monika. Only two years (and one other film – 1952’s Secrets of Women) separate Bergman’s two Summers but it’s clear that that period represented a major shift in the august filmmaker’s sensibilities.

Summer Interlude is a moody melodrama-via-flashback, not too far removed from the type of film Joseph L. Mankiewicz was making during this period (cf. A Letter To Three Wives, All About Eve, The Barefoot Contessa). The film opens as gloomy ballerina Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) is sulking her way through another ballet practice. She believes she’s past her prime as a dancer (“the new girls call us ‘ma’am’” her similarly over-the hill companion remarks). She’s feels trapped in her relationship with a journalist (Alf Kjellin) whose affections she barely tolerates.

Her depressive daydreaming is interrupted by the delivery of a mystery package. This event is heralded by rather purple stylistic choices common to Hollywood weepers: a musical flourish, a push to a close up of Nilsson’s horrified mien. This isn’t the kind of subtlety with which Bergman would ultimately be associated. The mystery package turns out to be a haunting mnemonic device, plunging Marie into further sullen torment as she recalls a romance from many summers ago.

Following an ominous power outage at the ballet studio, Marie takes the afternoon off, hopping a ferry out to an island far from the bustle of Stockholm. The fog-shrouded island is desolate; crows’ portentous croaks and the harsh whisper of the wind are the only sound. A mute old crone ambles through the mist and the buildings all appear shuttered for the season. The island turns out to be the site of her family’s summer estate and it’s here that, about seventeen minutes into Interlude, the flashbacks (and very selective, inconsistent narrations by Marie) begin.

During a summer vacation, years prior, Marie falls for Henrik (Birger Malmsten), a young man whose family has a smaller home across the bay. They hail from different social strata; he grew up stealing from her family’s orchard. Both Marie and Herik are watched over by malevolent elderly figures; he by his ghoulish aunt (who proudly announces that she will outlive young Henrik) and she by her “uncle”, a friend of the family who failed to wed Marie’s now-deceased mother and is setting his sights on Marie.

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The flashbacks summarize the passionate, brief romance in a way that is simultaneously nostalgic and disenchanting. “When did we sleep?” Marie’s ponderous voiceover intones. “We had no time for sleep.” They swim, they make love, and they wax poetic about their futures. “I’ll never die,” she says. “I’ll fall into an abyss,” he retorts. These lines not only sum up the characters but also the youthful mindset that’s being explored here; life is an all-or-nothing, no compromise expedition into The Future. They are on the doorstep of their destiny, having not yet succumbed to adulthood.

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From the start, it’s no secret that this pair is doomed. But the biggest problem I have with the film is the fate chosen for them. I won’t “spoil” it (though astute viewers will see it coming minutes into the film), but Interlude hinges on a particularly unnecessary bit of deus ex machina. Without it, the film had a chance to honestly explore the pain intrinsic to a so-called “summer romance” and the inevitable fragility of what seems like an eternal union forged by the gods. Instead, the film chooses fatalistic melodrama.

Despite that, Interlude is extremely watchable. Bergman, working with director of photography Gunnar Fischer, creates images that somehow combine natural beauty with supernatural dread. For every idyllic shot of the pair frolic king in the sun, there are eerie moments like the couple’s twilight encounter with a peacock in a misty glade. Particularly good is the scene where the two lovers hole up in a cabin for the night, listening to records and dreaming about their future. Their fantasy becomes literally animated, Zéro de Conduit-style, on an album sleeve. After the cartoon reverie, everything suddenly goes quiet and Marie remarks that she feels like she’s on “an alien planet”. Darkness settles in, seeping into the romance of the summer lovers.

“I’m very fond of Summer Interlude,” Bergman said in a 1960 interview. ”It is my favorite movie.” That’s a bold statement considering that at the time he’d already produced The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and The Virgin Spring. “I don’t mean,” he added, “that it’s my best.” Bergman’s affection for the film seems to be based on the fact that it represents the solidification of his filmmaking imprimatur. Here, all of the traits that one associates with a Bergman film – thematically and stylistically – begin to emerge.

It may be a bit bold to call Summer With Monika the first officially “Bergman-esque” film Bergman made, but it certainly feels a lot more of a piece with the landmark films he would make over the next decade or so (1966’s Persona being the next major leap in his filmography, in my estimation).

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Though it wouldn't be fair to call Interlude a rough draft of Monika, as some have, both films tell the same story differently. Bright-eyed Henry (Lars Ekborg) falls for Monika (Bergman muse Harriet Andersson) a lusty, aggressive minx from the other side of the tracks. Both work for brow-beating (or, in Monika’s case, ass-pinching) bosses in thankless wage-slave jobs. Harry’s ailing father is kind, but distant. Monika’s family life is a tumult of poverty and abuse. The two of them yearn to thumb their noses at the world and break away on their own.

Monika loves love; she obsesses over the glamorous, romantic films they see (she sobs through Clarence Browns’s Song of Love; he yawns). And here is a marked difference between Monika and Interlude: whereas the former film adopted the language of Hollywood melodrama, Bergman’s second Summer is a step removed. He scrutinizes the promises made by the glamour factory. There’s a healthy amount of Summer With Monika that’s not just about young love but about the love of movies. It’s no wonder that Jean-Luc Godard held Monika in so much esteem, he directly quoted an image from it in Breathless.

Ultimately, Monika’s passion infects young Harry to the point where he has no problem stealing his sick father’s boat and taking Monika away for the summer. The lovers decamp on an island, becoming the Adam and Eve of their new Eden. “Almost like we’re married,” Monika remarks. But there’s no threat of marriage, or any other accountability. The one time the two attempt to enter society – at a bonfire/dance on a neighboring island – they can hardly wait to abandon the situation and return to devouring each other.

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It’s hard to blame them. Stuck in the womby cabin interior, with only the cry of gulls and and burbling of waves to interfere with their mutual admiration. “We rebelled Monika,” Henry says, “against all of them.”

However, it doesn’t last. In a scene straight out of a Nordic folk tale, a berserk mute orchestrates an unprovoked attack on their boat. Henry subdues the attacker but the violence is the first sense they get of outside reality creeping in. Further complications arise as the fall rapidly approaches: what will they do upon their return to Stockholm? The youthful passion is untenable. It must mature into something or self-immolate.

In an interview included with Criterion’s edition of Summer With Monika, Bergman states that his thesis for the film is “Get out! But return!” Both of Bergman’s Summer films deftly navigate this paradox, depicting youthful passion as a thing that can’t remain but must not be forgotten.

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