On the cusp of mainstream cinema attention, outside of his native Sweden that is, Sommaren med Monika (Summer with Monika) paved the way, to a great extent, for Ingmar Bergman’s masterworks. Wild Strawberries, The Virgjn Spring, The Seventh Seal, were just three first-rate pictures not far away. Of course, I’m hardly suggesting that Summer with Monika is not a classic. It has many of the hallmarks we have become all too familiar with from a Bergman film. And deserves its place alongside the greats that followed for the next thirty years.
The 1953 gem also marks the arrival of a certain Harriet Anderson, with whom Bergman was romantically involved around that time. Summer with Monika was an energetic platform for Anderson’s own success as an actress. And there would be further impressive film collaborations with Bergman. Be it an unforgettable supporting turn in Cries and Whispers, or perhaps her exceptional, career-best performance in Through a Glass Darkly.
As Monika, Anderson is a breath of fresh air. A youthful surprise, encapsulating a zest for life, with an unflinching aura of spontaneity. Monika appears to be a sultry stray, one with a fearless spark, able to stand her ground with the men around her. That includes the men that hit on her at work, and in a different dynamic altogether, when she meets the meek Harry (Lars Ekborg).
There seems to be an immediate attraction between them. You have little time to ponder on the whys or hows – like what made a girl like her give this quiet guy her attention, given she could have the pick of the room. Monika has a personality with far more depth than the stereotype starlet. Anderson’s Monika dictates the evening, and thus the film’s pace. Bergman wastes little time in fuelling a summer romance that seems both impulsive and plausible.
As their unison blossoms, Harry and Monika plan to flee on an escapade. With a rush of blood to the head, Harry is reckless to lose job, but he has Monika on the brain and eager to set off on the boat with her. Both youngsters are eager to escape the harshness of real life, working class life. A reality they later somehow create for themselves. Bergman gives you a whiff of their bleak future when there’s talk about the lonely woman in the film they see at the cinema. Later, they comment on their romance like it is a movie. Just one of self-aware references that are alluring over pretentious.
Warmly portraying the uninhibited sensuality and sexual liberation of young romance, Bergman has a deft hand at switching the mood to that of melancholy, the harsh weight of adulthood, or even loss. The contrast makes sense, as in life do we flourish and fall. And the film breaks ground in its depiction of these transitions of companionship. I mean, not many women took their bras off in films in 1953, let alone invite a man’s hand to caress her.
Then the tolls and troubles of marriage and children. The suffocating, frantic exposure of the characters is heart-renchingly executed. When Monika admits her infidelity to Harry she cowers from him. “Don’t hit me. Don’t hit me.” she pleads. But he does anyway, unexpectedly, slapping her a few times. “How has it come to this?” he asks in despair. Indeed.
Characters act and talk fast, planning their lives together, on the move. Compared to the tranquil moments away from the characters. Views of the horizon, or the steady waters, a kind of respect to nature itself – now Bergman is really taking his time. Relationships can be enduring, fleeting, but the wind still blows, and the ocean still sways.
Summer with Monika is shot with such poise and prowess, every angle of their faces plays a part. Intimate face close-ups, a Bergmanesque trait in the making, capture a raw sense of tactile human contact and embrace. Depth further explored in the framing of Monika, when she is not in the foreground, she lingers in the background – always part of the action. Several chunks of action take place in a single take. One example of this bravura achievement comes when Monika fends off one male advance, gets back to work, fends off another man, before straightening herself out. She wanders a few yards, taking off her top and headband. Camera follows Anderson the whole sequence, even as she enters another room, without a blink.
And you just cant talk about Summer with Monika without hailing one of its truly exquisite moments. As Monika lights a cigarette, she sits back, and casually turns to look right at us. A look so magnetic, so knowing, you’re caught in the spell. This was beyond innovative for its time. Jean-Luc Godard would be influenced by this for the final shot of Jean Seberg looking directly at the camera in Breathless. And François Truffaut, as with the final moments of The 400 Blows, but also the poster of Monika on the wall.
Summer with Monika ends on a low note, one which Bergman’s film many-a-time hinted on. The promising bond of the opening scenes seem so far away. Yet, Bergman takes us back to a couple of the early memories in the film’s final moments. A beautiful, sombre closure, one which reflects the film Summer with Monika’s place in Bergman’s early, extraordinary filmography – thus not to be forgotten.