Monday, April 4, 2011

All That Wacky F***in'

Film: Sommarnattens Leende (Smiles of a Summer Night)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

What’s the first thing you think of when someone mentions Ingmar Bergman? If you are like most people, the first thing you think of is a guy dressed in black playing chess against Death. The last thing you’d probably think of is a jaunty comedy featuring more than half a dozen sex-starved lovers swapping partners with each other. And yet this is what we discover in Sommarnattens Leende (Smiles of a Summer Night). It’s not the usual Bergman, I’ll admit, and yet it is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made.

Sommarnattens Leende is as much of a sex comedy as one could get away with in 1955 and still be seen in polite company. Our main character is Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a successful lawyer and something of a ladies’ man. Fredrik is married to the much younger and extremely nubile Anne (Ulla Jacobsson). The marriage, while two years old, has not yet been consummated because Anne isn’t ready. This is compounded by the presence of Henrik (Bjorn Bjelfvenstam), Fredrik’s son from his first marriage. Henrik is actually a little older than Anne and is a theology student.

However, he’s also in his early 20s, and is painfully attracted to Anne. Worse, the feeling is mutual. Anne sublimates these feelings into treating her husband like a father while Henrik starts doing the boom-boom with Petra (Harriet Andersson), the family maid. Petra is a flirt and a tease (she does things like unbuttoning her uniform in front of Henrik) and would certainly satisfy the libido of any man, but Henrik doesn’t really want her. Oh, he’s not turning down the sex too often, but he’d rather be with Anne.

Fredrik goes to consult with Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck), an actress and former mistress of his. They squabble a bit, and when Fredrik steps into a gigantic puddle, she takes him in and puts him in nightclothes while his own clothing dries. Enter her current beau, Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), a military man who is famously jealous as well as completely open about his affairs. He threatens Fredrik and, once Fredrik leaves, splits with Desiree. In retaliation for what he assumes is Desiree’s infidelity with him, he tells his wife what has happened—yes, his wife knows all about his affairs. As it turns out, Charlotte Malcolm (Margit Carlqvist) is an old friend of Anne Egerman. Charlotte also desperately loves her husband and wants him back.

And so, to sort out all these threads, Desiree convinces her mother (Naima Wifstrand) to host a party. They invite the Egermans and the Malcolms, and of course Petra comes, too. Now we have four lusty women (Anne, Desiree, Petra, and Charlotte) and three guys (Fredrik, Carl Magnus, and Henrik). Add a fourth guy and the math all works out and everyone goes away with the right person and finally gratified. Of course, there will be plenty of misunderstandings, bed hopping, and all the rest before we get the happy-happy. And you know we will here. It may be Bergman, but it’s also a Shakespearean comedy of errors, and is less a love triangle than a love octagon. It simply has to work out eventually.

Bergman, of course, was Swedish. So too were the members of ABBA. The music of ABBA was used as the basis for the film Mama Mia!, which was all about a woman trying to figure out which of three guys is the father of her child. My 12-year-old daughter watched it with my wife and said it should have been called Who My Baby Daddy? When I heard what the plot was, I started calling it All That Wacky Fuckin’. Sommarnattens Leende is the black-and-white equivalent.

Of course, the women are in charge the entire time here, which is exactly as it should be. In general, men are idiots when it comes to romance, and the men here are no different. Carl Magnus is a posturing buffon, Fredrik is too clever for his own good, and Henrik is a stick in the mud (he’s also the closest thing to what one thinks of as a Bergman character). Meanwhile, the women all know what they want and move to get it.

There’s a lot of implied sexuality going on here. Anne tends to burn with a lot of unbidden passion whenever Henrik is around, and Desiree can’t go thirty seconds without flirting, even when the only other person in the room is her mother. Charlotte is almost disturbingly exotic. And Petra…oh, Petra, you saucy wench.

For all of this, my favorite character in the film is Desiree’s mother. She’s a complete riot throughout. She’s funny, blunt, and matter-of-fact, and her age gives her the license to say the things that many of us would like to say. In conversation with her daughter, for instance, she comments that she doesn’t bother really listening to anyone anymore because she generally doesn’t like people that much and caring is bad for her health. She’s an absolute treasure, sort of the Bergman version of 80% of Betty White’s characters.

Such a funny little movie, a charming little film. It certainly hints at future Bergman themes (what with Henrik threatening suicide), but for all its theme of marital infidelity, betrayal, and playing fast and loose with a couple of the deadly sins, it’s fun. There are times when it looks like it won’t be, but everything here is ultimately played for comedy.

Why to watch Sommarnattens Leende: Bergman doing comedy and doing it well.
Why not to watch: There’s a time for gratuitous nudity, and this film was it...but it didn’t deliver.


  1. This film also surprised me when I first saw it. Having grown accustomed to Bergman's deeply probing dramas (SEVENTH SEAL, WILD STRAWBERRIES, CRIES & WHISPERS), I was thrown a bit by the film's lightheartedness. That said, I enjoyed it immensely (and I also liked Woody Allen's "remake" of sorts, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY, though it doesn't hold a candle to the original)

  2. I also wonder if it's not a film like this one that started the myth prevalent in America during the 70s that Swedish women were somehow tartier and trampier than those of other European nations. The women in this film aren't notably beautiful--they are movie star beauties, but not jaw droppingly so. But they are also almost purely sexual beings, much more so than the men.

    It does feel like a stretch for Bergman, but a good stretch, and a most enjoyable film.

  3. This is one of my candidates for favorite Bergman film, which is a five- or six-way tie at this point. I saw it for the first time a few years ago and loved it from the first. I saw it again last night and it reminded that, yeah, this is a great film and it's right up there with Bergman's best.

    I think Harriet Andersson kind of steals this movie, and I almost think I'd like to see a movie series about the adventures of Petra in Sweden circa 1910. I also love Desiree and the Countess and their scheming and how their plan doesn't go right ... or does it?

    As for the comment that the women aren't notably beautiful ... I must disagree. They are all stunning, especially Harriett and the actress who plays Desiree.

    As for A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, I saw it about 1988 on cable and I thought it was hilarious even though I had no idea it was based on a Bergman film and I'm not even sure I had ever heard the name Ingmar Bergman. I wonder what I'd think of Sex Comedy if I saw it now?

    1. Oh, I agree the women are beautiful, but I don't find them glamorous. They're real, which I tend to like more. Harriet Andersson is a sexy beast in this.

      I liked this far more than I expected to, and there are worse choices for favorite Bergman.

  4. Yes, the mother, I forgot to mention the mother. She is awesome and the dialogue with her and Desiree is the best in the movie.
    Those women are stellar, all of them.

    1. I agree. It's the women who drive this film. This is probably Bergman at his most feminist.