Non-Bergman Bergman for A&F Nominations.
I have to admit I wasn't prepared for Smiles of a Summer Night, and I am not in agreement with the many favorable and positive reviews I find glowing around the 'net.
But at any given moment if you were to ask me to make a list of my favorite directors, Ingmar Bergman would make my Top Five, or my Top Ten, every time, easily.
Raised by a minister, he became agnostic as an adult, and every question between those two extremes is raised in the body of his work. Bergman's films have a certain fingerprint, a kind of atmosphere that only he creates -- there's always the search for God, for meaning, a reason to existence, but it isn't content with faceless or nameless spirituality. His films show, and then deny, that something is out there -- but whatever it is, if it is, it's just beyond our reach. His doubt, "adult" and logical in its nature, seems like an expression of a forlorn (and child-like) faith. The shadow of the Almighty creeps around every corner in his films, even as Bergman himself hides away and believes (pretends?) that it doesn't exist.
His style typically displays this, somewhat somber in its tone. His style typically matches his questioning nature, the stories of the meanings of existence he loved to write and direct.
It was a slow process for me to learn about Bergman, and why I so love his films. But over the years, the more I researched (and the more I continue to research by continuing to dig into his oeuvre), the more I am typically rewarded.
I was recording in a studio in Birmingham, England in January of 1996 when I was first introduced (on laser disc!) to Fanny and Alexander ('83). It was that film that, as a preacher's child, left a definite impression on me. The father in this film is a preacher, and he is a beast. Whereas my dad is no beast, but definitely a faith-filled man with an agenda, I understood some of the fear of the children in this film. Real and imagined concepts of ghosts and God constantly scare the children in this film -- but nothing frightens the kids more than the concept that God Himself, very much the same form as dad, could be the same juggernaut you fear.
It took a few years, but I eventually made my way into the black and white snowy archives of older Bergman, beginning with perhaps his two most well-known, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (both from 1957, the auteur's finest year). Later Bergman wrestled with the same spiritually significant themes in his Faith trilogy, which may have been the pinnacle of these deep-seated musings: Through a Glass Darkly ('61), which Bergman has said "conquers certainty"; Winter Light ('63), which he then describes as "penetrating certainty"; and The Silence ('63) ("God's silence -- the negative imprint."). All three mesmerized me, shaking the foundations of my structured belief, and yet opening up new ways to a larger and better faith in a more mysterious and silent God. (I wrote more about the Faith Trilogy beginning here.)
Since then I have found repeated greatness in The Virgin Spring ('60), Persona ('66), Shame ('68), Cries & Whispers ('72), and Autumn Sonata ('78, and the one Bergman I saw and know that I loved, but don't remember it very well now).
I love this man. I love his heart, and his search, and more than anything, I'm thankful for his prolific output, and the truthful heaviness of his films.
But immediately noticeable about Smiles of a Summer Night is that it does not feel like a Bergman film at all. It feels like pre-Bergman Bergman, or a man who hasn't yet come into all the greatness I just described. It feels like it's 1955, before all the other films I just listed, and right at this moment Bergman hasn't yet found his voice.
It also feels cheap, and all too easy. It feels like something that came out of Hollywood at the time, only spoken in Swedish, with frolicking orchestral music in the background and a flair for the easy laugh. Is it unfair to the film itself that I know a bit about Bergman from a time after this film was made? Could I have sat through this classifiable "romantic comedy" (i.e., "romcom") (i.e., yuuck!) had it been another director and I didn't approach the story with Bergman bias?
Doubtful. Here's your story:
He is married to her but likes the other gal instead, the other gal likes him back but has taken on a new lover, the new lover is married but won't let anyone fool around with his mistress, but the maid likes him and his son and flirts with both and slaps the one but then shows him her boobs --- and so on, and so on, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad naseum, et al.
Only the humor is so put-on it feels like you're wading through theatrical melodrama to get to it -- and even then, only for a slight philosophic chuckle -- and the production has a slicker feel, like Bergman knew he needed the cash, like he needed to make this one count at the box office. Indeed, some research around the web shows that this was his most outlandish production cost at the time of filming ($100,000), and that the film made money world-wide upon release (you can still find a glowing review from 1957 here), and that after Smiles of a Summer Night was made, so goes the rumor, Bergman never had to worry about the cost of a production again. This was his hit, and after this, the finances would simply be there.
I'm sorry, but this has the stench of a mainstream sell-out. And yeah, they even had those in 1955.
I know there are artists who have to do this sort of thing in order to create the kind of art they want to make. In fact I just wrote about Woody Allen, who in his film Crimes and Misdemeanors, plays an artist who needs to make a documentary on his successful brother-in-law (Alan Alda) in order to continue with the project of his dreams: a documentary on an Old Testament philosopher no one has heard of. Or -- you hear about the artists who work the jobs they hate in order to put food on the table and continue to chase after their own pursuits. The broke artist in the creative process, selling out to latch onto his dream, working the mill or the mine and running off to showcase stuff on weekends.
It's a noble idea, and a worthy pursuit for many. It's something I struggled with from time to time as a musician. (Yes, I did play six weeks on tour with that certain country band in order to raise cash for a debut recording in my second European alterna-rock band.)
But watching Smiles of a Summer Night simply feels, to me (a Bergman lover), like humiliation of the greatest kind.
They say he had a great sense of humor, between periods of depression and great anxiety.
Sadly, I guess there are polar extremes buried inside all of us.
Smiles of a Summer Night might be a nice little Swedish 50s rom-com, if that's what you're in the mood for. If you're in the mood to see a film by Ingmar Bergman, I say this is no film by the Ingmar Bergman I know, and you should avoid this monstrosity at all costs.