Summer with Monika

(Sommaren med Monika, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1953)


Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika has always inspired intense passion in its devotees. François Truffaut – whose responses to films he liked tended to veritable erotomania – deemed a saucy publicity photo of Monika (Harriet Andersson) worthy of theft by the hand of his alter ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), in The 400 Blows (1959). Jean-Luc Godard wrote several wildly adulatory pieces about it near the end of the 1950s. More recently, scholars including Alain Bergala and Antoine de Baecque have acclaimed it, retrospectively, as a key work in the development of modern cinema.


Bergman himself recalled it with great fondness all his life, as a 2003 intro for Swedish TV screening, included on the superb Criterion Blu-Ray edition, shows. He had a personal investment: in his mid 30s when he embarked on the project, he promptly fell in love with its barely 20 year old star, and ended up leaving his wife and children for her (background imparted with admirable honesty by Andersson in Peter Cowie’s 2012 video interview on the Blu-ray). If ever a film burned with amour fou both in front of and behind the camera, it’s Summer with Monika.


In the fascinating 30-minute Images from the Playground (2009, also on the Blu-ray), directed by Stig Björkman and co-produced by the Ingmar Bergman Foundation and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, we see this loving gaze upon Andersson prolonged even between official takes, whenever Bergman turned his trusty 9.5mm Bell and Howell camera in her direction.


Summer with Monika remains a film of remarkable freshness and vitality – crossed with a melancholic, even bitter vision. We see better today this consistently split-level construction: how the dream of youthful passion lived out by Monika and Harry (Lars Ekborg), in their brief rejection of a drab Swedish society, is counterpointed at every turn by the practical realities of money, ageing, inevitable disappointment and everyday mundanity.


One enduring appeal of the film is perfectly clear in the 21st century: it is a model teen movie, in not only its plot and characters, but also its entire style and mood. Its centrepiece is a lengthy island idyll, in which the social world is still never entirely absent – but where, nonetheless, the young lovers manage to escape far and deep enough into nature to live out, for a precious while, their shared dream.


This is what Godard responded to in 1958 (a piece helpfully reprinted in the Criterion booklet), when he suggested that Bergman’s camera “seeks only one thing: to seize the present moment at its most fugitive and delve deep into it to give it the quality of eternity”.


Once Monika falls pregnant, of course, the reality-principle comes knocking: marriage, work and the event of childbirth – something that Bergman presents almost in horror movie terms, as the moment of separation that will forever fatally divert a woman’s love from her man. (Such jealousy directed at his own children is a bad vibe to which Bergman candidly admitted.) In the fatalistic, indeed brutal suggestion that love will always pass, and that betrayal by the woman is inevitably on the cards – a male castration nightmare that infuses Bergman’s cinema – we might see the deepest link between the Swedish master and his comedic, self-styled protégé in the USA, Woody Allen. The latter’s recent films, such as Whatever Works (2009) and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), pivot on the moment when the earthy, non-intellectual woman spontaneously decides, as Monika does, to opt for a sexier, less emotionally demanding, immediately available guy.


For commentators past and present, Andersson as Monika has heralded the New Woman in European cinema of the 1950s and early ‘60s alongside Monica Vitti, Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau and Emmanuelle Riva; some feminist critics, including Geneviève Sellier, have queried the woolly existentialism – and ultimate male-centredness – of this formulation. Be that as it may, there is more at stake in Summer with Monika than a specific, amorous tête-à-tête between actor and director blown up to indelible screen art.


For those who worship it, Summer with Monika seems to hold some keys to that great question whispered among cinephiles: what is cinema? Almost any film, with a little forcing, can be presented as a significant “transitional point” between what precedes and what follows it in cinema history; Bergman’s film, however, is an especially rich meeting-place for significant currents that have shaped the medium.


Laura Hubner’s perceptive essay in the Criterion booklet makes the link between the Italian neo-realism that the film recalls (in its often squalid, quotidian detail) and the French Nouvelle Vague that, in so many ways, it anticipated – most famously, in the withering look into camera that Monika/Andersson performs, recreated by both Doinel/Léaud in the final shot of The 400 Blues and Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle (in the latter case, also routed via Seberg’s turn the previous year in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour, Tristesse).


But Monika’s reach is wider still. Seen today, there is a striking continuity between the French poetic realism of, say, Jacques Becker, and Bergman’s sympathetic view of the drudgery of daily, working life.


When Godard eulogised the film, he made a further set of connections: Bergman retained, rather anachronistically, “devices dear to avant-gardists of the 1930s” (such as Louis Delluc, Dimitri Kirsanoff and Jean Epstein), ranging from double exposures and reflections in water, to backlighting, and montages devoted to the surrounding environment (city or island). And it is in these depopulated montages that Summer with Monika stakes its claim to a legacy far more recent than the Nouvelle Vague: here is the seed of today’s contemplative cinema, whether von Trier’s landscape inserts in Breaking the Waves (1996), or the moodier, more psychologically-inflected vistas of Carlos Reygadas.


It is a pity that Criterion did not call upon the expertise of the French critic Alain Bergala, author of the beautiful little book Monika (Editions Yellow Now, 2005), in the production of their Blu-Ray. He proposes the following genealogy. With Jean Renoir’s Partie de campagne (1936) and Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1949) on one side, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) and Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) on the other, Summer with Monika compels us to identify a privileged site of modernist innovation: islands, insular spaces which almost magically liberate filmmakers to explore space, improvise with actors, and experiment with the camera.


Bergala uncovers the rigorous and heartbreaking formal logic underlying Bergman’s film: city life is marked by claustrophobic, cramped frames and menacing, off-screen presences; while island life is open-ended, a childlike paradise, a place where the forward march of dull, linear time stops and another sort of time reigns – that eternal present praised by Godard. Taking the film as a whole, we can see today what a master of mise en scène Bergman truly was: working with all four sides of the screen, he consistently found expressive ways to dynamise space, place, and the objects of the physical world.


In another book, Bergala (a true Monika obsessive!) has explored the specific traces that Bergman’s film left in the cinema of Godard – an intertextuality that has little to do with conscious quotation, depending more on unconscious absorption or transmission (as Bergala likes to call it).


In fact, one recent movie gives us a vivid illustration of this process, as it passes silently from one filmmaker to another. Remember Monika and Harry, in their natural idyll, dancing to a humble-looking, portable record player? That player, hit by a pesky beach wave, reappears in Pierrot le fou. From there, it becomes the radio blaring “Love is Strange” to the jiving teenage lovers-on-the-run in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973). And then it’s back to being a record player in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012), where the pop music of Françoise Hardy accompanies another immature boy-girl pair in their flight from a restrictive, soulless, adult world.


Does Anderson realise he’s the latest stopover in a line that leads straight back to Bergman? It doesn’t matter, really, what he thinks, or knows. As Jean Rouch once proclaimed, films beget films, in a mysterious, subterranean circuit – and that is among the secrets of cinema which Summer with Monika so richly illuminates.


I have only one small complaint to make about Criterion’s otherwise flawless presentation of Summer with Monika on Blu-ray. In all the versions I have seen, whether on VHS, DVD or television, it has been abundantly clear that a key moment is missing around the 56 minute mark – the culmination of the most intense, erotic scene between Monika and Harry, marked by a fast fade-to-black, as the lovers hit the ground together, and Monika bares her chest. The moment is there, fleetingly, in Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, as a screenshot in Bergala’s book, and even (with censorious reframing!) in the snippet of Kroger Babb’s infamous exploitation recut for the USA market in the 50s (Monika, Story of a Bad Girl!) included on the Blu-Ray. But the film itself is still lacking this crucial footage.


In a way, the oversight is fitting: Summer with Monika can now remain a mysterious, ever-elusive fetish-object for cinephiles of all ages.


MORE Bergman: The Seventh Seal

© Adrian Martin July 2012

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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