Summer with Monika (1953) is an odd yet fitting film with which to continue our Tour d’Ingmar. Like Crisis, A Ship to India, To Joy and Summer Interlude, its protagonists are flawed young characters in the process of becoming adults, though unlike many of the Bergman films earlier in the collection, the young man, Harry (Lars Ekborg), is selfless and arguably the more mature one, while Monika (Harriet Andersson), the female protagonist, is self-serving and at times downright unpleasant.
Nonetheless, Monika is no female counterpart to the not particularly likeable male leads in To Joy or A Ship to India, who compensate for their insecurity and neuroses with a phony sense of superiority. Monika is no neurotic, she is a brassy teenager from a social background we haven’t much seen in Bergman to date: Monika is a working class city dweller living with her parents and siblings in a flat so small, the kitchen seems to double as the bedroom for most family members. She wishes to escape to a different life, a life where she has options and possibilities other than a dead-end job and getting groped by her co-workers.
Monika comes across less as a gender-swapped take on Bergman’s flawed young males than as a precursor to modern characters such as the Dardennes’ Rosetta, characters that may not be helping themselves but neither do they have much manoeuvring space due to their socioeconomic situation. While the film is more of a social critique than earlier works, though, the director’s focus nevertheless lies firmly with the psychology of his characters. In Summer with Monika, Bergman depicts a seasonal romance that curdles into bitterness and resentment as his protagonists run up against limitations that are both societal and personal, and Monika reacts by lashing out against those closest to her.
When I first watched Summer with Monika a few years ago, I found myself resisting the film. I found Monika off-putting in her selfishness and in the way she punishes Harry because he fails to free her from what constrains him as much as her. This time round, and against the background of more of Bergman’s early work, I still didn’t like the character as such, but I found it easier to see how the film is sympathetic towards her. Her behaviour towards Harry is cruel after the idyll of their summer romance, but where he finds some freedom in growing up and gaining a job where he’s liked and respected, she only finds another prison in addition to poverty, that of motherhood at an age where she is nowhere near ready to take on the responsibility.
There is a scene after Monika has abandoned her aby and her relationship with Harry, where we see her in a bar smoking and drinking with another man – and after a few seconds she turns and looks straight at the camera, at us, as the background behind her fades to black. Later Harry gets his own similar scene, looking out at the audience, but Monika’s look directly at us is the more striking of the two. It’s as if she dares us to judge her. Bergman doesn’t sentimentalise his film by making Monika likeable, but he makes her understandable. Her life is one of deprivation and constraints, because she is poor, but doubly so because she is a woman. Though Harry is still very much a child himself when he and Monika have a baby, he is willing to try and make it work. He accepts the limitations imposed on him unfairly. Monika is unwilling to do so, and as a result the only free choice left to her is to leave everything behind, including her husband and her child. We often see men in fiction opting for this kind of selfish freedom, but Bergman’s film is remarkably radical in having a young woman, and a mother at that, to make that choice in a film released in 1953.