Last year – while I was in Sweden during the week when Ingmar Bergman would have had his 100th birthday, fittingly – Criterion revealed its plans to release Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, a collection of 39 of the director’s films, later that year. (It is telling that when you ask Google how many films Bergman actually made, the answer is “At least 36”. If Google doesn’t know a more exact answer than that, how should we?) As a self-confessed Criterion addict, I knew that there’d be no better way to get close to completing my Bergman collection than that, even though I already had some of the films on DVD and others on Blu-Ray. Still, getting all the remaining ones individually would be more expensive than getting the collection, not to mention more cumbersome. So, to cut things short: Reader, I ordered it.
Since watching 39 films is quite the commitment, and that’s ignoring that two of the films are actually TV series of four to five hours, I made a New Year’s resolution: to watch one of the films each month, which would mean a little over three years of Ingmar Bergman. Our January was surprisingly busy, so we finally got started on our Swedish odyssey on 1 February 2019, beginning not with Bergman’s first film but going by the sequence suggested by Criterion.
The first set of disks, titled “Opening Night” by Criterion, begins with a perfect delight: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) is a welcome reminder that Bergman simply doesn’t conform to the image many people have of the director and his films. Where people expect dour, depressing, and depressingly long, drama – the cliché of sad people standing on the beach in black and white -, Smiles of a Summer Night sparkles with wit and indeed sexiness. Compared to Hollywood films of the time, it is strange but more than a little refreshing to be watching characters in a black and white comedy of manners talking quite frankly about sexual matters. It’s also great that the film’s female characters display strength and agency throughout.
At the same time, the mix of Wildean witticisms (there is more than just a touch of The Importance of Being Earnest to some of the film’s scenes) and revels reminiscing of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t prepare for the moments when Smiles of a Summer Night reveals the undercurrent of dark melancholy and even despair. We get to laugh as the characters act foolishly in the pursuit of sex, affection and affirmation, yet Bergman isn’t satisfied with mocking them. Instead the film’s irony and the cynicism of some of its characters segue into something rather more poignant as we come to understand that what underlies the foibles of the various sets of lovers is often fear, of being inadequate, of getting old, of ending up lonely.
I know that there are Bergman films waiting for us that are heavier in tone and theme. Smiles of a Summer Night is a light starter and there are heavier courses, starker, less immediately appealing flavours, yet to come. But Criterion was right to suggest that we’d begin with such a sparkling, lovely film that left us with a smile even on a cold winter evening.