“There are five or six films in the history of the cinema which one wants to review simply by saying, ‘It is the most beautiful of films.’ Because there can be no higher praise”.
— Jean Luc Godard on Summer Interlude
By 1951, 33-year-old Ingmar Bergman had already achieved international fame for his screenplay of Torment, which had been directed by Alf Sjoberg and released in 1944. His talent as a writer opened up the doors of the film industry and soon he was asked to direct. Few of his earlier movies have achieved the popularity and prestige of works like Persona or Scenes from a Marriage, but Summer Interlude is worth revisiting because it might very well be the first movie where Bergman became Bergman.
In Summer Interlude, Bergman started using the stylistic themes and profound approaches to his characters that would become his own personal trademark. As usual, his plot is rather simple and straightforward; the film opens inside a theater where a group of ballerinas are in rehearsals for Swan Lake. Prima ballerina Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) receives a mysterious parcel which turns out to be the diary of Henrik (Birger Malmsten), her first love whom she met more than a decade before.
Moved by the strangeness of the delivery, Marie takes a boat to the island where she met Henrik and proceeds to visit the places where they conducted their romance. We learn that the reason for her melancholy is that their affair ended tragically and it seems as if Marie has spent the rest of her life trying to move past the painful memories.
With this exploration of an artist’s soul, Bergman makes us wonder whether art is something that can come out of “happy” or content people. All of his movies where art is somehow involved, suggest that creation is never more potent than when we use it as a release from our personal demons. Remember, for example, how the young hero from Fanny and Alexander uses a little puppet theater to change the course of his life, or how the doomed knight from The Seventh Seal seems to find solace in the company of a troupe of artists.
There are endless moments in Summer Interlude that evoke or seem to be referencing Bergman’s further works. During a beautiful exterior scene, Marie and Henrik decide to go looking for “wild strawberries” and a darker scene has Henrik’s ailing grandmother (Renée Björling) who calls herself “death”, playing a game of chess with the vicar (Gunnar Olsson). It’s getting chilly for the old corpse and the clergyman” says the old woman, before the camera — in direct opposition to the macabre feel of the situation — moves to find the young lovers. Those unfamiliar with Bergman’s oeuvre aren’t likely to notice such moments, but his devotees will find themselves glowing excitedly because watching this feels like watching the birth of a genius.
The film’s stunning cinematography (by Gunnar Fischer) echoes the work Bergman would extract from Sven Nykvist later during the decade and the work provided by all his actors suggests how deep his latter performers would dive, in order to find the essence of their oft-troubled characters. Nilsson in particular, taps into the essence of the Bergman heroine: conflicted, otherworldly beautiful and holding tight to a secret that both fuels and shatters her life.
When the film starts and before we know the secret she’s hiding, Nilsson puts on a wonderful performance of a woman coming to terms with the inevitability of aging. “Our faces look 45, our bodies 18, we’re 28, but girls call us ‘ma’am’”, says one of the other ballerinas, as Marie gives her a sad smile. The beauty of this moment isn’t that Bergman was always so clever at capturing women’s issues, but that he so clearly knew that women were not necessarily the damsels in distress literature and other art forms might make us believe.
Bergman’s women always went beyond having completely superfluous problems (meaning plot driven conflicts or troubles with foreseeable resolutions); theirs are always problems that force us to give a closer look at those around us. Is Marie sad merely because she had a tragic love affair ages ago? Or is the summer interlude more affecting to her because it throws death and time at her when she least expects it to? This leads us to wonder why she even received the diary to begin with, but to spoil that would be making a disservice to a story that feels as soothing as the memory of a warm summer night and as devastating as the realization that perhaps life has no true meaning in the long run.
The Criterion Collection has done an impressive work in restoring the film to an almost pristine state. The movie probably never looked as gorgeous, and other than a very minor scratch, every frame has a delicious crispness to it. Sadly, no extras are included on the DVD version, but the movie itself should be quite the treat.