Summer Interlude (1951) came out only one year after To Joy, and in some ways it’s a remarkably similar setup. Again, we have an older character looking back at a youthful romance and its consequences. Again, the protagonist is an ensemble artist: where Stig (Stig Olin), To Joy‘s protagonist, was an orchestra violinist, Summer Interlude‘s Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson, who also starred with Olin in the earlier film) is a ballerina. In both films, love and death become intertwined. However, while To Joy is an often bitter film that suffers from a grating manchild protagonist, Summer Interlude is a much more joyous film and perhaps the first of Bergman’s early works in the collection that is not just engaging in parts but a pleasure to watch as a whole.
It should perhaps not come as a surprise that there is one key difference between the two films: the gender of the protagonists. Several of Bergman’s early protagonists were immature, self-centred, self-pitying young men needing to grow up, while his female characters tended to be more mature, and more complex, to begin with. It is difficult to separate the tone of To Joy from the neurotic self-importance of its main character. While Summer Interlude‘s young Marie is still a child, she lacks Stig’s self-involved sense of entitlement, and Nilsson’s performance makes her as believable as her more guarded, jaded older self who has built a wall to protect herself from pain.
While he is less physically convincing as a teenager than Nilsson, Birger Malmsten, who plays Marie’s doomed first love Henrik, is a more palatable take on Bergman’s young male protagonists of To Joy or A Ship to India (in which Malmsten also played the lead). He is still insecure, jealous and a child in some ways, but differently from To Joy‘s Stig, the audience doesn’t sit there asking itself why anyone would want to be with him, romantically or otherwise. Henrik has boyish charms, he lacks the pomposity of Bergman’s earlier young men and he is clearly in love with Marie more than with himself, which is a quality his predecessors didn’t have. The couple’s romance also takes the film to surprising stylistic places: there is a scene halfway through Summer Interlude where Marie and Henrik draw a cartoon of their romance on an album sleeve and the film switches to a fanciful, delightful animated sequence springing straight from the imagination of the two infatuated teens.
The engaging lightness with which Bergman and his actors depict the relationship doesn’t detract from the film’s darker elements, though; the film reveals early on that the summer romance doesn’t end well. A black-clad figure reminiscent of one of Bergman’s most iconic later characters makes an appearance early on – though this is where Summer Interlude makes for a more meta kind of enjoyment for those already somewhat familiar with the director’s works. The Seventh Seal‘s Death is anticipated as much as the sun-drenched teenage love affair on the Stockholm archipelago of Summer with Monica and, literally and symbolically, the smultronstället (wild strawberry patch) of Wild Strawberries. This is also where Criterion’s Bergman collection comes into its own: as we see more of the director’s work, it becomes a not insubstantial part of the enjoyment to see his motifs, themes and characters develop and mature over time. I wasn’t a huge fan of Summer with Monika when I first saw it one or two years ago, but I am looking forward to revisiting the film, as it’s the next instalment in our travels with Bergman, and I suspect that it will resonate more, now that I’ve seen more of his early works.