Kehr Capsule of the Week: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Ingmar Bergman goes poaching on the terrain of Renoir, Lubitsch, and Mozart. This 1955 film is his lightest and most appealing, but the light touch doesn’t come naturally to the Brooding Swede; a few of those smiles feel uncomfortably forced. Eva Dahlbeck is wonderful as the aging actress who hosts a summer party on her country estate—she seems much more responsible for the film’s gently wise tone than Bergman’s heavily telegraphed ironies. With Harriet Andersson, Ulla Jacobsson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, and Margit Carlquist. In Swedish with subtitles. 108 min.

The film is entirely about adultery. Most unusual for Bergman, it is a comedy. It flirts at times with screwball, but chooses more decisively to use the kind of verbal wit that Shaw and Wilde employed. One of its lines (“I can tolerate my wife’s infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger”) sounds like Wilde to begin with, and even more when it appears later in a different form (“I can tolerate my mistress’s infidelity, but if anyone touches my wife, I become a tiger”).

…It is difficult to imagine Bergman writing such dialogue, but those who knew him said he had a sense of humor that was the equal of his periods of depression and despair. Even this film has some dark moments, as when the Count’s wife Charlotte has a bleak monologue about males: “Men are horrible, vain and conceited. They have hair all over their bodies.” That speech occurs at a point before the wine kicks in.

Pauline Kael called this a nearly perfect film. Having not seen it for most of a lifetime, I was startled by how quickly it beguiled me. There is an abundance of passion here, but none of it reckless; the characters consider the moral weight of their actions, and while not reluctant to misbehave, feel a need to explain, if only to themselves. Perhaps here, in an uncharacteristic comedy, Bergman is expressing the same need.

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