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Around the World in 80 Films: Summer with Monika

Summer with Monika is a 1953 Swedish film directed by Ingmar Bergman, based on Per Anders Fogelström’s 1951 novel of the same title. It was controversial abroad at the time of its first release for its frank depiction of nudity, but due to this reputation the film was a huge success. Without a doubt, its international success was due in large part to the film’s bold eroticism. There is one scene in particular, where Monika clambers across a rocky beach in the nude, as Bergman’s camera gazes appreciatively at her body.

It was through some sneaky marketing via Kroger Babb, who changed the film’s title to “Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl.”, that led to the film becoming infamous. Summer with Monika is so much more than just another sexy, erotic European movie, it’s a sophisticated coming of age drama which discusses the themes of love, adulthood, parenthood and responsibility.

Summer with Monika

The film’s story begins in the bleak working-class milieu of Stockholm, a sprawling urban landscape with tall looming buildings that entrap our main characters. Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson) are both stuck in dead-end jobs when they meet. Harry is easygoing, while Monika is the opposite, and is free-spirited and adventurous, but despite their differences, they fall in love. When Monika gets in trouble at home, Harry steals his father’s boat, and he and Monika spend an idyllic summer in the Stockholm archipelago.

When the end of the summer forces them to return home, it is clear that Monika is pregnant. Harry happily accepts responsibility and settles down with Monika and their child; he gets a real job and goes to night school to provide for his family. Monika, however, is unsatisfied with her role as homemaker. She yearns for excitement and adventure, a desire which finally leads her astray. Harry leaves town for work and comes home a day early to find his wife with another man. They get a divorce and Harry is left behind with custody of their daughter, June, to raise alone.

Bergman is here returning to the earliest traditions of the Swedish cinema, as expressed most purely in the work of his inspiration and mentor Victor Sjostrom (whom Bergman would cast as the elderly professor in “Wild Strawberries”). Much of the film’s success lies with the cinematographer, Gunnar Fischer who manages to capture the play of the summer light over land and sea is also caught with an ease that seems almost miraculous, a picture perfect image if there ever was. Bergman sets key scenes at dawn and dusk, suggesting the implacable passage of time and subtly imposing his characteristic mood of foreboding and loss. Soon enough, summer comes to an end, and the young couple must return to the city, suddenly forced to accept adult roles when Monika finds she is pregnant.

Summer with Monika

Upon their return to the city, Monika’s sensuality and openness, once so liberating, becomes something to be mocked, and seems so childish now. She has responsibilities (they both do), but Monkia still acts carelessly, going out on the town, drinking and smoking with men. Monkia hasn’t changed, she is still who she was at the start of the film, but circumstances have changed and like how summer doesn’t last for ever, childhood and adolescence doesn’t last forever.

Bergman uses the element of space effectively as well, with most of the scenes taking place inside the cramped apartment as the two young lovers start jumping at each other throats. Before they return from their summer adventure, there were many exterior scenes capturing the wide, world that was open to these two young lovers, but because they were so caught up in their emotions and blind love, they couldn’t realise just the amount of freedom that they had at their disposal until it’s too late.

The imprisonment of marriage is a theme that Bergman that revisited time after time. To Bergman the concept and restraints of marriage is presented as a kind of hell, where everyone is alone, where everything has lost its meaning. Harry and Monika seem to be falling into a routine, one that so many couples end up trapped in, as they slowly watch the years tick by, until death finally catches up with them. It was a somewhat brave decision to have the couple’s relationship break down, a more traditional romantic film would have them work it out, kissing each other in the rain as they declare their undying love, but this is Bergman and happy endings are a rare occurrence in his world.

Summer with Monika

My favourite shot in the entire film was Monika’s long look at the camera — it lasts for about 30 wordless seconds, an eternity, especially considering how films are edited nowadays with quick cuts that act like they are repeatedly hitting you over the head. This simple, but powerful, shot is sometimes cited as a great moment of modernist filmmaking, and the technique would be replicated by Godard, who used it at the end of “Breathless,” with Jean Seberg’s defiant look at the camera.

By Monika’s stare into the camera, it breaks the fourth wall, as she addresses us wordlessly, as if to tell us that she doesn’t care if we judge her or not. It’s a simple, powerful shot that proves Andersson’s capability as an actress, she is more than just a pretty face on the poster, she is a real, complex individual.

Summer with Monika, one of Bergman’s most watchable and rewarding dramas, certainly it is his most accessible films. It’s a great film to see the process of Bergman’s talent emerging. His characters are real and nuanced, and this is far from a sentimental film, this is a truly captivating film which certainly stands the test of time. It’s a human tale, that many can relate to and it is for this reason that I consider it one of Bergman’s strongest pieces.

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