A famous actress with two very different lovers invites both, their wives, and the son of one lover to her mother's country estate in the hope of sorting out the romantic entanglements to her satisfaction--and the result is considerable charm and unexpectedly dry wit. All the performances are excellent, with Eva Dahlbeck's Desiree a standout, but the real star of this ensemble piece is the unexpectedly witty script. Never quite veering over into broad farce but never sinking into romantic sentimentality, it is a very precisely written tale, and both cast and director make the most of it.
In the face of Bergman's later work, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT may seem rather slight, and indeed both psychology and cinematography is considerably less complex than one expects. Even so, it is very much a Bergman film: the visual style is distinct, and the themes of appearances vs. reality, the inability to correctly interpret another's behavior, and the failure to understand one's self are very much in evidence--only here to comic effect. It is in every way a charming film that Bergman fans will enjoy.
Incidently, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT was successfully translated to the stage as the musical A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, the score of which includes the famous "Send In The Clowns." Fans of the original film will be interested to compare the two works.
The night for Fredrick and Anne (after a Platonic nap during which Fredrick inadvertently pronounces Desirée's name) begins with the theater; and who should be starring in the production but Desirée. Anne suddenly takes ill and they rush home. Fredrick now steals away to see Desirée. After a pratfall in some water he ends up in some night clothes that belong to Desirée's current lover, the militaristic Count Malcolm (Jarl Kulle as a sprung-steel bantam) who, as it happens, arrives upon the scene much to the merriment of Desirée and to the embarrassment of Fredrick.
The culmination of love's labors and intrigues takes place at the chateau of Desirée's mother, Mrs. Armfeldt (Naima Wifstrand). The action includes a most amusing duel, some hanky-panky atop a haystack, musical beds, an attempted suicide, some Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (if I caught the label right), the amorous kiss of young lovers, the triumph of the fairer sex, and the very proper lawyer's final humiliation.
If you haven't seen Smiles of a Summer Night you are in for a rare treat: a comedy by Ingmar Bergman. And it is no ordinary comedy. Shakespearean and Oscar Wilde-like in its sharp, satirical (and oh so worldly wise) dialogue, this playful romp with the Swedish landed gentry and servants of a hundred years ago is a delight that will satisfy the most sophisticated viewer as well as the most middlebrow.
Owing something to the French farcical tradition (in particular Molière), to light opera (maybe Mozart), and even the Greek theater, Bergman's romantic comedy sparkles with love's intrigues and pratfalls. According to Pauline Kael, whose review is part of a 24-page booklet that comes with the Criterion Collection DVD, Bergman had just finished directing a stage production of The Merry Widow which accounts in part for the fin-de-siècle setting and the genteel treatment that he finally settled upon for his comedy of manners. Also I think this examination and satire of the class structure with hilarious asides on the foibles of human nature owes something to Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest which was set in approximately the same time period and had a similar cast of characters including a Grand Dame, an ingenue, some rustics, a clergyman, but most directly in the fact that both Wilde and Bergman aim their sardonic wit directly at the burghers and the bourgeois. Bohemians need not apply. Indeed the closest thing to a Bohemian in the play is the actress Desirée who is the very calculating and dominate personage of the film.
By the way, Bergman's future protege, Bibi Andersson, does appear in this movie, but only for a moment as an actress on stage at the theater.
The final, cynical bemusement comes as one reconsiders who ends up with whom. Not to spoil the plot, but notice that in every case there is something less than perfect in each romantic partnership, something slightly amiss that may cause problems down the road, something unsettled that suggests that nothing has really changed. As the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. It is this ironic underpinning to this delightful comedy that lends to it something of the timeless. Bergman is good at that.
Ingmar Bergman always seems to conjure up images of gloomy, angst laiden movies that only Woody Allen and manic depressives would want to watch - but don't let reputation put you off. 'Smiles of a Summer Night' is delightfully funny and warmly humane. Bergman's script is full of sparkling humour and covers all the joy and pain of courtship, love and the constant, enjoyable battle between the sexes.
Women, Bergman seems to say, know much more than their male counterparts and understand their faults have to be accepted, compromises made for love. There are some beautiful lines of farce and wisdom that are delivered with a deftness of touch that seems lost from most comedies today. Pain is present also, as it should be, but always expressed with irony. The whole film is bitter sweet like the best dark chocolate, rich and tangy!
The DVD is very good - crisp picture and good sound. Watch out for the bed on wheels and the attempted suicide - young passion turned to absurdist farce effortlessly. I laughed out loud - and this is Bergman!