A Lesson in Love doesn’t exactly start very well, at least from a contemporary perspective: after an arch voiceover telling us to prepare ourselves for a comedy for grownups, we first meet a comely but angry young woman, Susanne (played by Yvonne Lombard), listing the failings of her older lover, the gynaecologist David Erneman (Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand). The lines are sharp, even witty, but it still seems that we’re watching what is essentially a male fantasy: obviously the young, attractive patients of a middle-aged, jaded gynaecologist would fall over themselves to undress for him in private as well as in his practice. It’s not that Bergman spares his protagonist, but whatever criticism is leveled at David, in the end it doesn’t matter. Young women seem magically attracted to him, and even as Susanne berates him for his cynicism, she still can’t help begging him to continue being her lover.
What David needs, and what the film soon provides, is a female protagonist who is more than pretty and sharp-tongued but finally pliant, and perhaps ten minutes into A Lesson in Love, that’s exactly what we get in Marianne Erneman, played by Eva Dahlbeck. We started our journey into Bergman with Smiles of a Summer Night, and Dahlbeck and Björnstrand are as fun a duo to watch in A Lesson in Love as they would be in Bergman’s Shakespeare-flavoured delight only a year later. While David and Marianne may also recall Shakespeare in that there is more than a touch of Much Ado About Nothing‘s Beatrice and Benedick in their verbal fencing, structurally and tonally we’re also not too far from the witty repartee of the comedies of remarriage starring the likes of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn – high praise, considering the weapons-grade charms of that particular Hollywood pairing, but as in Smiles of a Summer Night, Björnstrand and Dahlbeck are wonderful together, selling the audience as much on their resentment, anger and disappointment as on their affection and attraction, both in the flashbacks to their happier days and their present-day sparring.
Unexpectedly, the characterisation of the main characters does resort to some of the old stereotypes on women, men and relationships – it’s a rare romantic comedy that resists the lure of some clichés -, but the strength of the performers and their chemistry make Marianne and David into believable, relatable characters. While the other characters remain more sketchy, there are still great supporting turns by Harriet Andersson as the Ernemans’ adolescent daughter (which does feel a bit odd when one considers that Andersson played Björnstrand’s romantic interest in Dreams (1955) and that she had played Bergman’s most famous embodiment of teenage sexuality in Summer with Monika one year before A Lesson in Love) and Olof Winnerstrand and Renée Björling as David’s parents, a couple still very much in love after having been married for more than forty years.
Sadly, just as A Lesson in Love didn’t exactly have an auspicious beginning, its ending is also disappointing, giving David the upper hand in a finale that all too easily goes for a grating scene depicting Marianne as hysterically jealous and then makes her forgive him in an instant. It is likely that Bergman meant for the overly neat ending to be read ironically, but like the beginning it is difficult to read its male wish-fulfilment as subversive. In the end, men may be fickle, self-pitying, weak and not a little ridiculous, but they still get what they want, whether that is the sexy, willing young women that practically fall into their arms and their bed, or the older, mature woman who’s more than a match for them until they too succumb to those manly charms. As enjoyable as A Lesson in Love is, Bergman found a more convincing, and more interesting, ending a year later when he made Smiles of a Summer Night.