So you think Ingmar Bergman is a gloomy fellow, always tussling with the Big Questions and awash in Grade-A Lutheran guilt? Well, try a large dose of his Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and think again. Yes, you might find that Bergman has tucked a few of his big questions into this romantic comedy. For that matter, he’s even tackled Lutheran guilt head-on, but in comedic terms, with the character of the upright and uptight Henrik Egerman (Björn Bjelvenstam). Henrik is a theology student who takes everything very seriously indeed, but who also has a pretty significant and presumably sinful problem, since he’s in love with Anne (Ulla Jacobson), who just happens to be the young wife of his father, Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand).
And that’s just the beginning of the romantic complications that form the heart of Smiles of a Summer Night. It may not be such a bad thing that Henrik is in love with Anne, whose two-year marriage to Fredrik has never been consummated. Fredrik himself is very obviously still in love with the actress Desiree Armfeldt (a positively glowing Eva Dahlbeck), who threw him over a few years earlier. However, that situation is complicated both by Fredrik and Desiree’s need to appear utterly sophisticated and unemotional and the existence of Desiree’s extremely jealous current lover, Count Malcolm (Jarl Kulle). And that situation is itself tangled up with Count Malcom’s equally jealous wife, Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), who would like nothing so much than to have her husband to herself. Throw in a biologically accommodating maid, Petra (Harriet Andersson), Desiree’s outspoken mother (Naima Wifstrand) and an assortment of lesser comic servants, and you have the recipe for this stylish, charming, funny, warmly human and surprisingly earthy film. I can think of nothing from this era that’s as unabashedly sexual as this film.
As a maker of romantic comedies, Bergman proves himself the equal of Ernst Lubitsch in his heyday at Paramount in the early 1930s. Bergman creates a world of seemingly effortless enchantment from the very onset and never loses the touch (catch that magnificent tracking shot of Desiree and Fredrik as they walk along the riverfront early in the film). It also offers testament to Bergman’s status as a working filmmaker who wasn’t just making “important” movies (among other things, notice that he’s ready to conform to the tastes of the day with Dahlbeck’s very 1955 coiffure in his early 20th century set comedy). I was fortunate to be able to see this recently on a theater screen with a small group of people, one of whom didn’t even know who Bergman was. He was also the one who said afterward, “I liked that. It made me happy.” I think Bergman would have been delighted.