What do you do when you are thoroughly miserable? A serious love affair is over, and a marriage to a wonderful woman is ending. Two of your films have bombed at the box office, and the head of your production company says he will ax you if you make another unmarketable drama. Your finances are extremely meager, but your body is even thinner, down to a measly 125 pounds. You have constant stomach pains and think you are dying of cancer (though later a specialist will determine that it is all psychosomatic). And you have a group of players who have been acting together for years and need a summer project. If you are Ingmar Bergman, you write a comedy.
He said it succinctly himself to a group of students at Southern Methodist University: “This was a terrible time in my life, and I was extremely depressed. So I said, ‘Why not make a film just for fun?’ I went away to Switzerland and had two alternatives: write Smiles of a Summer Night or kill myself.” How lucky for him and us that he picked the former.
The starting point was an old abandoned idea, An Ancient Chinese Proverb, a drama about a young man in love with his father’s second wife. That was contemporary; for the new comedy, he chose a 1901 setting. He had had a recent stage hit, in 1954, with The Merry Widow, and was doubtless also thinking of three comic masters found under the letter M: Marivaux, Molière, and Mozart. Costume, in any case, was good for comedy: period clothes, hairdos, and manners could elicit laughs from audiences who thought themselves above such carryings on.
Still, what kind of comedy comes out of such a deep depression? Not one for belly laughs or helpless giggles, though those too may occur. More likely was what Stanley Kauffmann called “a comedy more barbed than funny”—more cutting wit than rollicking humor. Then again, many of the world’s great comedies play out against a darkness lying in wait without or within. Think of Molière’s Misanthrope, Pirandello’s Henry IV, Shaw’s Pygmalion, or almost anything by Giraudoux or Anouilh, Kleist or Brecht, Chekhov or Beckett. Were this not the case, the result would be farce.
Consider now what Bergman views as one of the greatest goods and one of the greatest evils. That perhaps supreme good is what he calls contact; the name of the fate worse than death is humiliation. In a telling phrase about Bergman’s cinema, David Thomson refers to the “harrowing separateness of people, the intractable privacy of men and women even in love.” There was that in two earlier Bergman comedies, or near comedies, A Lesson in Love and Dreams; there is that in spades in Smiles of a Summer Night. What happens when attempted contact fails: humiliation for one or both parties.
These two concepts in Bergman’s work and life stretch far and wide, high and low. At the lowest level, take his inscription in a book about him that I had with me at the time of our interview: “With thanks for a fine contact.” At the highest, there was the humiliation incurred when goons from the Internal Revenue Bureau hauled Bergman away mid-rehearsal for alleged income-tax fraud, of which he was duly cleared. Still, his sense of humiliation was such that he left Sweden, outside of which he never felt well, for Germany, ostensibly forever.
A comedy of wit, then, which tends to take the form of one-upmanship. Somebody says something silly, and another’s smart riposte tears the person down. Or the one says something clever, and the other trumps with something cleverer. The result: humiliation, trivial though it may be, but certainly greater if what is lost is an actual or potential lover. For where is humiliation—or, in effect, loss—greater than in the game of love?
In one of his poems, George Meredith wrote, “In tragic life . . . passions spin the plot.” Note the two terms derived from theater: tragic and plot. And as in life, so in theater; as in the tragic, so in the comic. The chief, constantly underlying image in Smiles of a Summer Night is theater. Desirée Armfeldt, the pivot of the plot, is a great actress, and theater is her life even as her life is theater—either way, a great, perhaps the great, game. This is beautifully suggested when lawyer Fredrik Egerman and his virgo intacta child wife, Anne, are seated in the proscenium box at the theater. As the curtain goes up on the stage, light reflected from it goes up also on the stage-shaped box; a luminous parallel is conveyed: there is theater on both sides of the footlights.
In the French comedy performed, the countess, portrayed by Desirée, has among her names Célimène (Molière’s heroine) and Francen (as in Victor Francen, a leading French theater and movie actor of the forties). She steals women’s husbands and returns them, after a brief dalliance, as tender lovers, faithful husbands, and exemplary fathers. Her trick is to treat men’s dignity as a beloved toy or to gently put it to sleep—a toy with suggestions of both penis and doll. “Love,” as the countess elaborates, “is a perpetual juggling of three balls: heart, words, and loins. How easy it is to juggle these balls, and how easy it is to drop one of them.” Juggling, too, is a theatrical game.
The juggler-protagonist here is Desirée, the desired of all men. Bergman has said that one of his wives, Gun Grut, was the inspiration for many of his heroines, including Desirée, as portrayed by Eva Dahlbeck. Gun and Eva together embodied for him “indomitable femininity.” But the feminine mystique, in which he manifestly believed, has four embodiments here. Besides the mature, experienced, and, when need be, maternal Desirée, there is also the pretty, cosseted girl-child, Anne, her womanhood in bud; her saucy, sexy, flirtatious counterpart, Petra, not above using her allure for advancement; and finally Charlotte, the neglected young wife, seething with anger at her philandering husband yet also loving him, even unto seducing another in order to recover him through jealousy. Desirée is the comforter of men, Anne the arouser of their paternal instincts, Petra the good-humored object of their lust, and Charlotte, tortured and tormenting, the dangerous woman.
When starting out on Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman says he “thought of it as a technical challenge to write a comedy with a mathematical relationship: man-woman, man-woman . . . four pairs. Scramble them and then solve the equation.” The schema is to show each woman first with the wrong man, then ending up with the right one. Thus Anne, who at sixteen married the much older widower Fredrik Egerman, will end up with his son, the repressed, timid theological student Henrik, the two of them having yearned for each other all along. Henrik, who had an unsuccessful sexual encounter with Petra, will be duly superseded by the sexually experienced, mature coachman Frid. Desirée is first seen as the mistress of the cocky, Don Juan–esque officer and aristocrat Count Malcolm, but she is a much better fit with her ex-lover, the wittily sarcastic yet fundamentally mellow lawyer—and both of them cigar smokers! Indeed, while in bed, with his virgin wife about to yield to him, Fredrik was dreaming of Desirée. The predatory Malcolm belongs with his intense wife, united by what seems like a sadomasochistic relationship. Significantly, we first glimpse Charlotte up close at the other end of the flame, lighting her husband’s cigarette.
I spoke of humiliation. Desirée is the only one not greatly humiliated in the course of the action. Anne is humiliated by her husband’s muttering of Desirée’s name in bed, by Desirée’s glance at him that she believes she catches at the play, by Charlotte’s revelation that Fredrik was chased out of Desirée’s apartment in a nightshirt, and by her uselessness in her own kitchen and garden, where her servants rule. Fredrik is humiliated by being tossed out of Desirée’s apartment by Malcolm, wearing the count’s nightgown and a clownish nightcap; he is not even granted the count’s robe, which Malcolm repossesses along with his mistress. He will be humiliated more thoroughly by his wife’s elopement with his son, and by the Russian roulette duel with Malcolm that leaves him with soot on his face. Henrik is humiliated by his failed sex with Petra; his outburst at the dinner party of Mrs. Armfeldt, Desirée’s mother; and his unsuccessful suicide attempt. Charlotte is humiliated by her faithless and brutal husband and is reduced to responding with a tearful tirade against him and all men at tea with Anne. The servants, Petra and Frid, Malla and Beata, are above, or perhaps beneath, humiliation.
Clearly, the continual change of partners echoes a French sex comedy. But beyond theater, the film partakes of another art, music. There is singing behind the opening credits; singing by Desirée as she, her maid Malla, and Fredrik form a little procession from the theater to her house. Also her significant postprandial singing in the yellow pavilion of a German lied: “Rejoice in life while the little lamp still glows, / Pluck, before she withers, the rose.” She and Fredrik, no longer young, must especially seize the day. Earlier, in Desirée’s parlor, where Fredrik and Malcolm tensely confront each other, the count whistles a military march while the lawyer hums a bit from “Là ci darem la mano,” the Zerlina–Don Giovanni seduction duet from Mozart’s opera. And the cherub on top of the trick bed that unites Anne and Henrik trumpets an impish tune.
The film’s score, sparingly used (eventually Bergman was to forgo scores altogether), is by Erik Nordgren, whom Bergman used most often. Nordgren was no slouch, though not quite one of the greats whom Bergman employed at other times: Karl-Birger Blomdahl, Erland von Koch, and Dag Wirén. The music is mostly a bridge between scenes, like the shots of moonlight and gliding swans between the various nocturnal escapades at Mrs. Armfeldt’s weekend château party, or crashing arpeggios (when Fredrik, at dinner, becomes aware of Anne’s love for Henrik, and again when, lurking in the shadows, he watches the two young ones elope by coach). It can be impassioned, as when Desirée races in a carriage to her mother’s to plan the party; romantic, as when Henrik is rowing Anne on the Armfeldt lake; or comical, as when Malcolm, with his wife and an orderly in tow, drives up to the Armfeldt château in a sputtering motorcar.
But music influences the very musical Bergman more deeply when he adopts its rhythms for the structure of his films. More kinetic scenes alternate with more stationary ones, agitation with sedateness. And there are the strategically recurrent themes. Thus the photographs of Anne that Fredrik picks up in the beginning, that he makes more of as he fingers them than he does of his trophy wife near the middle, and that get symbolically pocketed by Desirée near the end. Various clocks strike hortatorily, notably the cuckoo clock for cuckoldry in Desirée’s parlor, and the church tower clock with its circling carved figures corresponding to some of the film’s characters, a roundelay that first ends with a symbolically crowned female figure, next with the grim reaper. The dance of life, climaxing with the dominant female, can as easily become the dance of death.
Bergman is fond of symbols, like these clock figures. Hence the windmills seen at film’s end, driven by the wind as the dramatis personae are by passion. Hence, too, the veil that flies off Anne’s head as she rides away with Henrik and that is picked up by the stunned Fredrik. It stands for the hymen, for Anne’s loss of virginity, for the husband left to, so to speak, pick up the pieces. That sadly, ominously floating veil is part of another art that informs the film: choreography. We see it in the fierce croquet game played by Fredrik and Malcolm in the château’s garden and observed from a window by the plotting Desirée and Charlotte. (The numerous watchings, from windows, doorways, and theatrical wings, are, of course, highly theatrical.) But the way the camera switches from the count’s violent playing of the game to the women doing their beneficent conspiring exemplifies the choreography inherent in camera movement and placement, and in crosscutting. When Malcolm and Charlotte target-shoot together in the bowling alley the count has converted into a shooting gallery, their movements are a clear pas de deux. Even more obvious choreography is in the bucolic-erotic sex chase of Frid and Petra, observed by Henrik from a window, a mating dance that, in installments, leads to the end of the film, with the three symbolic smiles of the summer night. But there is choreography even in such tiny bits as when, at dinner party’s end, Petra leads away the weepy Anne (repeating the weepy departure from Desirée’s play) and they bump into the dejected Fredrik’s rear: yet another female alliance, yet another humiliation of the male.
That bump, too, is symbolic. As are the smiles between midnight and daybreak of the long, luminous northern night. Here, the beer-swilling Frid reveals himself to be a bit of a poet, and thus more deserving of the spirited Petra. The first smile is for young lovers, but when the teary Petra asks why she was never a young lover, Frid alerts her to the scarcity of young lovers and to their love’s being a punishment as well as a gift. Anne and Henrik are the young lovers whose punishment, though unseen, may well be their financial straits once married. The second smile is for the likes of Petra and Frid, the jesters, the fools, the unredeemable. For such they are, by their insouciance, lack of education, slaphappiness in the haystack where they make love. The third smile, in the sobering dawn, is for “the sad and dejected, for the sleepless and lost souls, for the frightened and the lonely.” Who are they in this story? The scholar Frank Gado suggests the audience at the movie. True, such people haunt the cinemas, and it is good to think of them receiving a benefaction as well.
To return to the question of what kind of comedy this is, I choose a few marvelously illustrative moments. Take Desirée’s teasing comment backstage to the troubled Fredrik: “You old goat, you brute, you long-nosed camel! You’re looking unusually human.” Throughout the film, almost every character is referred to or refers to himself as some animal—it is almost as if we were in an animal fable. Here, though, we get the reverse: an animal, or animal-like man, becomes in a somewhat ludicrous situation amusingly more human.
The jealous Malcolm, finding Fredrik with his mistress, ominously inquires, “Are you fond of dueling?” To which the lawyer replies: “It’s possible. I’ve never tried.” This, in the face of peril, is humorous bravado. Much later, during that Russian roulette duel, Malcolm declares, in appreciation of Fredrik’s pluck, “Allow me to say that you impress me, Lawyer Egerman.” To which, with a wonderfully quizzical expression and intonation, Fredrik replies, “It’s not courage, dear sir.” Perhaps not, but very good gallows humor.
Again, in the shooting gallery, Malcolm tells Charlotte, “My wife may cheat on me, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger!” When Desirée gets Malcolm out of bed with the news that Charlotte and Fredrik are alone in the yellow pavilion, he exclaims with the same fury, “One can dally with my mistress, but touch my wife and I become a tiger!” Note first the animal image. Next, the same threat used in reverse; the humiliation of a presumably loving woman by stressing her unimportance compared with her rival. Lastly, the inescapable inference that neither woman means as much to Malcolm as his pride.
What makes this film theatrical? That its main elements are not so much kinetic as confrontational, that the focus is not so much on an action, something expansively visual, as on something verbal, confined to a look, a tic, a quirk accompanied by words that tickle, sting, provoke, or soothe—and stay in place. This, too, is what there is plenty of in Smiles of a Summer Night: an emphasis on the tightness of the acting area rather than on its expansion and constant change.
If the piece is a comedy, the humor is more in what people say and feel than in what they do. But if comedy is sparked by the author’s depression, with surmises of darkness underneath, behind, beyond it, just how is that manifest? In that even when the right people end up together, there is no sense of God in his heaven and everything right with the world. If Anne and Henrik escape together, it is at the cost of profoundly hurting Fredrik, and toward a future that may be all too problematic. If Malcolm and Charlotte are reconciled, it is only because the husband’s jealousy was provoked, his self-importance challenged—and that may quickly pass, as his ironic last speech implies. Even Petra has to extort Frid’s abiding by an opportunistic promise of marriage through fierce pulling on his ears—he doesn’t want to outdo van Gogh in earlessness.
Above all, it may be mostly because of humiliation that Fredrik and Desirée end up together. At some point, the elopement and Russian roulette that guaranteed their presumably forthcoming marriage may not seem to them a solid basis for matrimony. Even the correct solution has something makeshift and fragile, potentially ephemeral, about it. Think of how close to tragic the comic comes here. If the rope had not slipped, Henrik would be dead. If the bed that came through the wall had been his father’s, all hell would have broken loose. If Malcolm had not been alerted in the nick of time to his wife’s incipient dalliance with the hated lawyer, Fredrik might have been shot for real. Even the bullet that the furibund Charlotte shoots at the door through which Malcolm strutted off might have been fired a moment sooner at the faithless spouse himself.
Conversely, if the sleeping Fredrik had not muttered Desirée’s name just as Anne was ready to yield to him, all the mismatched people might have stayed—uncomically—together.
This is where the film’s theatricality manifests itself most powerfully. Whereas film always smacks a bit of the documentary, of photographed reality, the theater tends to remind us of puppet theater, of an omnipotent author-puppeteer pulling so many strings. That in Smiles of a Summer Night you can always feel Bergman cannily in control never quite lets you forget that outside this playfulness there lurks, precariously held at bay, a reality that is no laughing matter.
John Simon has written for more than fifty years on theater, film, literature, music, and the fine arts for such publications as the Hudson Review, the New Leader, the New Criterion, the National Review, New York magazine, the New York Times Book Review, and the Washington Post. His writings have been collected in seventeen books. For more information, visit his website at johnsimon-uncensored.com. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2004 DVD edition of Smiles of a Summer Night.