Note that I have reviewed this film again since for one of my Criterion Sunday posts.
Ingmar Bergman is one of those feted directors of the past who I imagine is more admired than actually watched these days. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but his reputation is nowadays largely founded on the idea of dour Scandinavian films grappling with faith, death, and other big themes. As it happens, these are ideas that come more from parodies of his style than the actual films, though even in this comedy (and Smiles of a Summer Night, his first major film, is a comedy) there are scenes of questioning doubt and existential torment, not to mention an attempted suicide — it’s all just worn rather lightly.
The film takes as its central character a middle-aged lawyer, Fredrik (played by Gunnar Björnstrand), whose pomposity and ridiculous affectations (not the least of which is his carefully-shaped beard), not to mention his much younger wife Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), make him a figure of gentle fun for many of the other characters. And yet, at heart, he seems perfectly aware of himself and his foibles, as much as those around him, which makes this film more subtle in its comedy. He has not yet consummated his marriage to Ann, and finds himself straying back to an old mistress, the actress Desirée (Eva Dahlbeck), for guidance and consolation. She is now the mistress of the jealous Count Malcolm, who himself is married, while amongst all these characters flits the maid Petra (Harriet Andersson), unencumbered by their bourgeous morality with respect to sex.
What results is a delicate ronde of relationship drama, as each character finds their more ideal match in a denouement at Desirée’s mother’s home in the country. The plot and characters were taken by Stephen Sondheim pretty much without alteration for his musical A Little Night Music, and there’s something almost musical to Bergman’s film too in the way it reconfigures these pairings, nimbly moving among the different storylines with a bit of wraught melodrama in between.
What’s also evidently clear from the film is that the men are all fools, each in a different way a victim of his ego and self-importance. Therefore it’s the female actors who dominate the film, and it’s wonderful to watch Dahlbeck’s face react to the petulant and demanding men around her, and the ease with which her character Desirée manipulates them. The other key character is Petra, who despite her servile role has little time for the games the others play, and toys delightedly with both Fredrik and his son Henrik.
The film takes place in the 1890s and the sets feature plenty of ornate decoration, while stuffy period clothes are used to good effect — when Fredrik changes into a nightshirt and is forced to wear it home, it’s difficult to keep a straight face. The beautiful black-and-white photography makes good use of light and shadow, such as when Fredrik is hiding in a corner, and there are plenty of melodramatically heightened two-person shots with each character facing off in a different direction.
Almost 60 years may have passed, but this is still a delightful romantic comedy, almost slapstick in places, but still suffused with Bergman’s sensibility and some of his abiding themes. It also shows up plenty of more recent comedies in the strong, liberated roles it gives to women, still apparently a problem for too many filmmakers. It may be time to reassess that mental image of Bergman.
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ulla Jacobsson; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 12 August 2013.