Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Review #1,484

Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Cast:  Gunnar Björnstrand, Ulla Jacobsson, Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Jarl Kulle
Plot:  In late 19th century Sweden, four men and women are pit against each other on matters of the heart.

Genre:  Comedy / Romance
Awards:  Won Best Poetic Humor (Cannes).  Nom. for 3 BAFTAs - Best Film from any Source, Best Foreign Actor, Best Foreign Actress
Runtime:  108 mins
Rating:  PG for some sensuality
International Sales:  AB Svensk Filmindustri

“I am tired of people.  But that doesn't stop me from loving them.”

Most might assume Ingmar Bergman’s later twin films from 1957—The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries—to have heralded and affirmed the arrival of one of European cinema’s most distinguished auteurs, sparking a newfound desire for arthouse cinema by a growing band of film enthusiasts and critics.  

But to fully appreciate in context Bergman’s transformation from a good filmmaker to a great one, one needs to go back to 1955’s Smiles of a Summer Night, as remarkable a turning point in a filmmaker’s career as any.

With mounting personal problems and a couple of pictures that flopped at the box-office, Bergman decided to make a comedy.  In the esteemed director’s oeuvre, Smiles remains to be one of his most important and successful films (even if it is less talked about than his other works), without which Bergman’s legacy wouldn’t have been written.

A period piece shot in the midst of a heatwave, Smiles pits four men and four women against each other, as they try to find out who they truly love at the end of the film.  Backed by an ensemble cast, with notable performances by screen legends Gunnar Björnstrand and Harriet Andersson, Bergman’s film exudes a sense of theatricality, with its stage quality analogous to the truth—and artificiality—of performative action and its associated emotions.  

In Smiles, humiliation and confrontation—ideas explored in John Simon’s 2011 essay “Midsummer Merry-Go-Round”—take centre stage as it were.  The supposedly stronger sex takes a beating from the opposite gender, with masculinity, femininity, marriage, relationship, love, lust, and everything in between thrown to the wind.  

When the wind does eventually die down, and the little puzzle pieces finally if fatefully fit, Smiles asks of us to embrace the universal fallibility of men and women locked in the stranglehold of desire—but is it really empathy that we deserve?

Bergman’s film is certainly made with acerbic wit, of which much of its comedy is milked from.  But it is also a flirtatious work, almost mildly erotic, not in its pursuit of flesh, but in its exploration of the laws of sexual attraction and matters of the heart.  It won the Best Poetic Humour award at Cannes.

Verdict:  Bergman’s breakthrough international success is a witty if flirtatious comedy about the laws of sexual attraction and matters of the heart.




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