Smiles of a Summer Night (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 5.3.2011)
Smiles of a Summer Night is always cited as Ingmar Bergman’s first international success, but before this 1955 film, his efforts were not too popular in Sweden either. Who would have expected Bergman -- creator of such downbeat films as Sawdust and Tinsel -- to make a comedy, much less a completely charming one? Set at the turn of the century, Smiles of a Summer Night focuses on the overlapping romances of smug, middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand), his much younger wife Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), his clergyman son Henrik (Bjorn Bjelfvenstam), the famous actress (and his former mistress) Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck), Desiree’s current lover Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), his jealous wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist) and lusty maid Petra (Harriet Andersson). Most of the characters may be in love with two of the others, leading to misunderstandings stopping just short of farce, as they slowly evolve from stereotypes to complex figures.
While Smiles of a Summer Night has similarities to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and Max Ophuls’ La Ronde, it is distinctive because of the dour undercurrent created by Bergman, showing the thin line between love and despair. With the sound and subtitles of, Smiles of a Summer Night could almost pass for one of Bergman’s dramas. As we learn in the extras, the film might have ended Bergman’s film career if it had been a failure, but its surprising success -- following a tumultuous reception at Cannes -- earned him complete control of his work thereafter. The film’s treatment of sex may not seem unusual now, but for the 1950s, it was fairly explicit. The sex contributed to the film’s success and paved the way for the widespread public embrace of later Bergman films like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.
In addition to Bergman’s sophisticated handling of his themes, Smiles of a Summer Night stands out for the outstanding quality of the performances -- including that of Naima Wilstrand as Desiree’s worldly mother -- and the sparkling cinematography of Gunner Fischer. As Peter Cowie points out in one of the extras on this disc, many black-and-white cinematographers emphasize blacks, but Fischer (who died on June 11th at the age of 100) makes whites stand out. Smiles of a Summer Night looked good in its previous Criterion incarnation, but this Blu-ray captures the contrast between the shadowy gloom and the brighter moments, best exhibited in a pre-dawn romp by Petra and another servant, Frid (Ake Fridell). Nowhere else does Bergman embrace the joys of life as he does in Smiles of a Summer Night. No wonder Stephen Sondheim turned it into A Little Night Music.
The extras include a 16-minute conversation between Bergman biographer Peter Cowie and Jorn Donner -- who has made two documentaries about the director -- and a charming 4-minute interview in which Bergman recalls how he learned the film was at Cannes. The booklet features essays by Pauline Kael and John Simon. -- Michael Adams