Summer with Monika: Summer Dreaming

The erotic portrayal of young love in Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika (1953) remains powerful to this day. It is a courageous film, fighting for Harry and Monika, who rebel against their drab lives in Stockholm for one passionate summer together on the Swedish archipelago. It is also a key film in Bergman’s career, solidifying his move toward an increased focus on women’s perspectives—the attention given to Monika’s dreams provides a fresh challenge to the themes of escape and compromise he’d been developing in his work. Although modestly made and received originally, the film steadily acquired a reputation through the 1950s, becoming a sensation internationally. At first, in America, this was due largely to exploitation pioneer Kroger Babb’s 1955 reedited version, released as Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl! and boosted by an advertising campaign featuring provocative images and captions. But Summer with Monika would soon also create a stir in critical circles across Europe and America. Rediscovered amid the mania generated by Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and The Seventh Seal (1957), and fueled by praise from French New Wave critic and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard in 1958, it was hailed as an early example of Bergman’s artistic vision. Audiences were struck by the film’s urban realism, inspired by Italian postwar filmmaking, which captured the smoky restrictions of Stockholm’s port on the teenagers’ lives, and by the free camera work that celebrated the vast open spaces of the Swedish wilderness.

Summer with Monika
is a film about escaping to another world. It is also about returning and facing up to one’s responsibilities. Or at least that is how it appears on the surface. While the end of the film ostensibly suggests acceptance of the status quo, we are left unable to forget the precious transience and vital potential of Harry and Monika’s brief escape. When the summer ends, with Monika now pregnant, the lovers return to set up house together. On one level, the dream dies when, cheated on and discarded by Monika, Harry is left holding the baby at the close of the film, their summer together reduced via flashback to a simple memory, or illusion, that he must learn to move on from. However, on another level, the dream lingers; it is Monika’s refusal to conform that creates tension and makes Summer with Monika so brave for the time. Iconic references to the film in other movies, including François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), pay homage to the Nordic sensuality of Summer with Monika’s love scenes and to its active rebellion, embodied in the couple’s escape but also, specifically, in Monika’s final defiance, which resonates through the face of Harriet Andersson, the young Swedish actress who plays her.

Bergman said that he decided to audition Andersson for the part of Monika when he saw her in Defiance (Gustaf Molander, 1952), because he felt that no girl “could be more ‘Monika-ish.’” There are elated accounts of the fun that was had once the small crew went out on a little boat, took up residence in the parish clerk’s house on Ornö Island, and spent three weeks filming outside with their silent camera. Sad at the prospect of returning home, they were only too delighted to discover that a scratch on the negative meant they would have to stay on and reshoot almost everything, from beginning to end. Bergman’s love affair with Andersson during these later weeks is well documented. He once said he was “no little infatuated with Harriet” and that there had “never been a girl in Swedish films who radiated more uninhibited erotic charm.” Summer with Monika is a love poem to Andersson, and she is certainly often conveyed as a sexual object. In the images of her at dawn on their first morning away—the tracking shot of her walking barefoot in white shorts and the long shot from across the bay in which she blends with the waterside grasses—we feel Bergman’s presence as Andersson’s lover.

But Monika is not simply an erotic object. She is also a figure of identification. The cinema had traditionally been a place for escapism, but in Andersson we see the arrival of a new kind of female star, one with a natural beauty that shuns Hollywood glamour—a difference reinforced by the film’s portrayal of the world of cinema, which helps stimulate Monika’s dream of escape but also points to the contrast between her and this elegant other world, marking her out as being more “real.” Perhaps more importantly, in terms of identification, Monika harks back to Bergman’s early male heroes who rebel against society. However, while those young men return to face their responsibilities, Monika’s refusal to compromise presents a powerful twist on Bergman’s narratives of the forties.

In Alf Sjöberg’s Torment (1944), for which Bergman cowrote the screenplay and was assistant director, and Bergman’s own It Rains on Our Love (1946) and A Ship to India (1947), the female—as either victim or prostitute living on the margins of society—represents a form of escape from the beaten track for the young man. Potentially dangerous, she functions as part of the boy’s development into mature manhood. Toward the end of the decade, Bergman’s films (such as Port of Call and Prison) focus increasingly on the concerns of the female character, but the young man’s coming-of-age remains pivotal. While Summer with Monika ends similarly, with Harry accepting his responsibilities, it also depicts Monika’s story. She is a figure of identification from the start of the film, when the harassment she endures at the wholesale greengrocer’s is carefully highlighted. We see Harry’s home life only with Monika, whereas hers is given individual attention, separate from the scenes she shares with Harry. She is physically abused by her drunken father. Her family’s cramped tenement flat, where she sleeps in the main room with her younger siblings, is filmed in a devastating long take. Her reclining to smoke upsets her mother’s attempts to attend to a small child in a bed next to hers. These claustrophobic scenes make the journey out to the archipelago all the more liberating.

Monika’s defiance is more vigorous than Harry’s because it is more desperate; she actively leaves her job and her home. Facing the options that surround her, she has no alternative other than to become financially dependent on a man (and there are associations with prostitution here) or to repeat the poverty cycle like her mother, who is still rearing children. Summer with Monika sits with other early 1950s Bergman films—Summer Interlude, Secrets of Women, Dreams—in marking the even stronger shift toward female characters that Bergman would continue for the rest of his career. But it also occupies a unique spot in that period in its investment in the female’s dream and its depiction of her refusal to conform.

Quite in keeping with Bergman’s earlier works, however, Summer with Monika hinges on the seasonal cycle. Young lovers meet in spring. They have their summer. They are disillusioned in autumn. They mature in winter. Bergman’s early 1950s films abide by this structure with renewed dynamism. In Summer Interlude, Secrets of Women, and A Lesson in Love, the short summer of love is shown as a flashback. As such, it is controlled by the imagination, or memory, of the protagonist. (It is also worth noting that the extremely popular Swedish film One Summer of Happiness, by Arne Mattsson, was made in 1951. Like Summer with Monika, it was censored because of its explicit love scenes and naked bathing.) In Summer with Monika, the onset of bad weather brings with it, as far as Harry is concerned, the need to return to the city. But Monika’s refusal—“No, I’m not going back. I want summer to go on just like this”—contests the film’s overt message of conformity. And perhaps all the more importantly, the long summer scenes, beautifully shot by Gunnar Fischer, are not in flashback but emerge with the full potential of what might be achieved, taking up half an hour of screen time.

Monika is a problematic role model, but her instincts for survival during the final stages of the couple’s time away represent a terrific attack on bourgeois comfort and repression. Having decided they must steal apples and potatoes from a private garden, Monika goes around the back of the cottage and into the storehouse as Harry pulls feebly at a tree. Caught by the mother of the house, forced inside, and told by the father that the police will be there within
ten minutes, Monika grabs a joint of meat from the dining table and runs off, crawling through trees, stopping occasionally to tear off bits of the meat with her teeth, as a dog barks (perhaps rather obviously). When she makes it to Harry, who is waiting with the boat, she shouts, “If you won’t get it, I will . . . I don’t want to go back . . . No, I won’t.”

One of the most extraordinary moments in the film occurs near the end. While Harry is away on a business trip, Monika sits in a café with a man and, as music rises from the jukebox, turns to stare—in a very long take—directly into the camera. Her open but defiant gaze anticipates the more reflexive distancing devices of Bergman’s films of the sixties, such as Persona (1966), where the female point of view is also central, and The Passion of Anna (1969). The static shot of Monika’s face is scandalously close up, and she looks steadfastly at us, breaking the cinematic illusion, as the screen darkens around her. Such a shot has rarely been seen in cinema, and it was practically unheard-of at the time. Film critic Robin Wood described this moment as almost the only departure from the film’s strict naturalism. Monika’s returning our gaze distances us from the fiction. It also says, “Look at me and judge me if you dare.”

The shots of nightclubs and dance halls that follow this moment have often been taken to signify Monika’s fall from grace, suggesting a future for her that is closely associated with the lives of the dancers and prostitutes in Bergman’s earlier films. But there are other ways of interpreting this montage that make it more a celebration of Monika’s fantasies and the other world of the cinema, the magic of which captivated Bergman’s imagination throughout his career.

We may remember that Monika’s vision of escape is motivated by her love of the cinema (a passion we are invited to share and that warms us to her as a character), and that seeing a movie is her single impetus for returning to the mainland. Near the beginning of the film, returning from a night out at the movies with Harry, Monika looks longingly at a blouse in a shopwindow, after fantasizing about the elegant lives of the movie stars. Her command “You may kiss me now, Harry” echoes words from the film they have just seen. As she says this, the close-up of her brightly lit face against the dark background is similar to the moment in the café when she stares into the camera.

Thus this later shot of Monika’s direct gaze could just as easily be seen as the moment when Monika (or Andersson) becomes the star. She has taken a puff from her cigarette like the star did in the movie she saw with Harry. In this light, the nightlife montage could be taken to show Monika as she dreams to be, recalling her comment earlier that people in films go “to clubs and dances and all that.” Stylistically, the montage is a welcome contrast to the heavily claustrophobic shots of her life at the start of the film.

Bergman always said that making Summer with Monika went like a dream, adding, “It’s close to my heart and one of my films I’m always happy to see again.” The film’s magnetism is due in no small part to the immediacy and power of Andersson’s performance. It is this that gives energy to the love story, igniting an impulse to live beyond the mundane. Monika’s statement “I want summer to go on just like this” not only challenges conventional concepts of conformity and compromise but also offers an enlightened philosophical stance—to be explored further by Bergman in The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (1957)—that advocates cherishing the moment.

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