In the early ‘50s, world audiences received a sexual jolt in the shape of Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika, which along with Arne Mattson’s One Summer of Happiness—released a year before Bergman’s movie—convinced audiences that Sweden was the filmic place to visit, in order to see stories about sexually liberated young people who had no regards for morality. The truth of the matter is that Bergman’s movie in particular is essentially a critical look at the perils of young love and the harsh consequences that arise from irresponsible romance.
Needless to say, Summer with Monika isn’t specifically a morality tale, given that Bergman never judges his characters or subjects his audiences to didactic methods. These days, the film fails to ignite any sort of forbidden desire because audiences have seen it all. What remains from this masterpiece is a pervading sense of loss and melancholy. Woody Allen has claimed that, as a teenager, he watched the film in the hopes of having a hormonal release, only to discover—as most people would—that the scenes of exposed flesh are practically inconsequential.
Movies about summer romances have existed since the medium started (summer is also the preferred season of musicians and writers), because there is something almost primal about the way in which the rising temperatures give way to hot bodies combusting against each other. In Sweden there is something even more specific about the joys of the all-too-brief summer, given the region’s long, cold winters. In the North, then, summers offer more than vacation time—they are opportunities to become truly alive. This might be why some of Bergman’s most poignant movies take place during the summer (even the summer sequence in Fanny and Alexander seems to be from a different movie, altogether).
When filming Summer with Monika, the director announced to his crew that it would be like a summer vacation and a film shoot. The cast and crew left behind the stress of the city and concentrated on shooting the summer sequences near the Stockholm archipelago. During these shots, we see how the title seductress (played by Harriet Andersson) convinces her young boyfriend Harry (Lars Ekborg) to take her away for the summer. Harry, whom we’ve come to know as a tempered young man, steals his father’s boat and embarks on an idyllic adventure with Monika. The first part of their vacation has them frolicking in the water, making rapturous love whenever and wherever they can, and then retreating to the intimacy of their little home.
When juxtaposed against earlier scenes in which we see Monika’s lack of privacy at her parents’ house and Harry’s cold relationship with his father, the summer sequences take on a lyrical connotation. These aren’t just people in love, these are people who had to carve out their own little private world in order to escape the harshness of real life. Their scenes together are much like watching two little children play house. This takes on a darker turn when Monika becomes pregnant and the summer comes to its end.
The couple marries and it becomes obvious that all Monika ever wanted was to perpetuate the joy of that carefree summer. While Harry decides to find a job and tries hard to support his little family, Monika pretty much forgets about her young daughter the minute she’s born and then proceeds to live a life of decadence and hedonism.
The latter part of the movie (about 20 minutes) concentrates more on the heartbroken Harry and the film closes with a scene of ravishing beauty as we watch the young man literally age decades in front of our very eyes. Seen in contrast with the way that Bergman rejuvenates the prima ballerina of his Summer Interlude, both parts of the film can be seen as pieces of the same diptych; the other that shows the dreamier side of life; the other, a harsher reality.
Released under the banner of The Criterion Collection, this edition of Summer with Monika boasts a gorgeous transfer as well as an introduction by Bergman who confesses this was one the first movies he was proud of. An interview with Harriet Andersson touches key points about how the film’s controversy contributed in bringing mainstream audiences to arthouse films. Also included is a charming piece about how the movie was released in the United States by master of exploitation, Kroger Babb, who edited the film until it lost all its melancholy, and turned it into a sex drama. Film scholar Eric Schaefer talks in detail about exploitation and how at one point it might as well have been the most popular genre in Hollywood.
Rounding out the set is “Images from the Playground”, a curious documentary made out of material shot by Bergman who delightfully says that getting his first movie camera was like realizing he could make moving photographic albums. This half hour piece gives us a rare behind the scenes glimpse of the master at work and features interviews with Harriet Andersson and Bibi Andersson. A trailer and a booklet of essays complete the DVD set.