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Witty, Perceptive And Very Funny
on 26 July 2017
To describe Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 exemplary exercise in film-making 'simply’ as a comedy is really to underestimate the extensive virtues of Smiles Of A Summer Night. That’s not say that the film isn’t funny – it is, in fact, it is frequently hilarious. The comedic elements of Bergman’s script, which seamlessly mix satire and elements of farce, would give a run for their money to the likes of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Charles Lederer (His Girl Friday), etc. and no doubt the film’s qualities gave Bergman-fanatic, Woody Allen, palpitations (in his attempts to match it)! But, even though Smiles may lack the levels of profundity (and, certainly, the solemnity) of Bergman’s most lauded works, the film’s juxtaposition of tragedy and mockery, across a range of themes, is done so pitch-perfectly as to lend the film much poignancy, in the process contributing significantly to what is in toto a great spectacle in accessible entertainment. The film undoubtedly scores most highly by dint of Bergman’s screenplay, but its faultless cast, memorable black-and-white cinematography (beautifully evoking the turn of the 20th century period setting) by Gunnar Fischer and atmospheric score (mixing Erik Nordgren’s original composition with the likes of Mozart, Chopin and Schumann) perhaps understandably led noted critic Pauline Kael to equate the film to something nearing perfection.
At a simplistic level, Bergman is giving us a 'battle of the sexes’, the fairer sex needing to resort to underhand machinations to get the better of the pompous, deluded male of the species, against a backdrop of widespread amorality. Gunnar Björnstrand is outstanding as the self-centred lawyer, Fredrik Egerman, torn between his rekindled feelings for his ex, Eva Dahlbeck’s equally nostalgic actress, Desiree Armfeldt, and his 'paternal affection’ for his young, unsullied wife, Ulla Jacobsson’s Anne, whilst his weak-willed, idealistic son Björn Bjelfvenstam’s Henrik aspires to the priesthood, whilst despairing at his world’s loose morals. Vying for Desiree’s affections is Jarl Kulle’s officious army officer, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, in open defiance of his feisty, resentful wife Margit Carlqvist’s Charlotte, and completing Bergman’s outstanding cast is the pairing of Harriet Andersson’s flirtatious maid, Petra, and Ake Fridell’s rustic servant Frid. Bergman plays off these two quartets of characters against one another, via a series of complex, predominantly sympathetic, character two-handers, whereby his more tragic themes around human frailty and longing are invariably undercut by moments of witty, often scathing, satire. An exemplar of this is the early stand-off between Fredrik, Desiree and the Count, the former two characters initially sharing wistful moments of what might have been, before the arrival of the latter, and the departure (comic farce-style) of Fredrik into the night, bedecked only in a nightgown.
The film’s final set-piece midsummer night dinner at Desiree’s mother’s (the excellent Naima Wifstrand) house is another cinematic pièce de résistance, during which Mrs Armfeldt’s mysterious ‘potion’ (wine) seemingly casts a spell over Bergman’s protagonists (across whose faces the director gives us a nice series of camera dissolves), before resolving the potentially tragic consequences in keeping with the film’s continuing sense of (good-natured) irony.
As an example of an ensemble satire, an obvious comparator film for me would be Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu and here Bergman does touch on class, as well as religion, the theatre and royalty, as a source for mockery. As a satire on the roles of the sexes, plus the film’s ornate period setting, I would opt for Max Ophuls, particularly La Ronde. Certainly, the designation of ‘comedy’ should not detract from Smiles Of A Summer Night’s status as another major Bergman work.