By Mike Dub
On the surface, Summer with Monika, one of the major early films of Ingmar Bergman, contains all the hallmarks of a typical teen romance film. Two young lovers, Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson, who would become one of Bergman’s regular featured players), run away with each other, and away from the dissatisfaction of their everyday lives. They have adventures, discover their sexuality, and survive by their wits, until reality sets in and they come home together, older and wiser, but still in love. But Bergman, as cynical a critic of humanity as there ever was, has no interest in providing a saccharine story of blossoming young love. In fact, he seems to be subverting a genre that has barely been invented. Leave it to Ingmar Bergman to make a film about the wide-eyed fancy of young love and turn it into a devastating lamentation of the harsh reality of the world, and the tragic consequences of maturing into adulthood.
Summer itself is practically a misnomer here – Bergman’s Sweden is cool and hard, no matter the month. With a few profound exceptions, the stunning black-and-white cinematography by Gunnar Fischer largely avoids highly stylized contrast and maintains a cool distance, whether in the prime of summer or the dead of winter. Even in the middle of summer, Harry often wears turtlenecks and long pants, while the rocks that comprise the hillside are not so much wonders of nature as they are a barren landscape. The couple’s escape from their urban prison is welcome, but hardly idyllic. Though they experience the desired freedom, their journey is fraught with obstacles, including a menacing interloper, a decreasing food supply, and a revelation I won’t spoil.
With a structure essentially split into thirds (spring, summer, and winter), Summer with Monika ventures further into the aftermath of their getaway than more pleasing cinematic romances dare. However, Bergman and his screenwriter Per Anders Fogelström, upon whose novel the film is based, reveal what happens to the couple after after they return from their journey. Preferring psychology to sociology, Bergman portrays their love as doomed even before their return, not only because of the demands placed upon them by a decrepit society, but by the tragedy of a free spirit trapped by responsibilities.
Summer with Monika was surrounded with controversy upon its initial release in 1953 for its nudity and moderate sexual content (it was released in the U.S. by an exploitation distributor who marketed it as skin flick called Monika – Story of a Bad Girl). Of course, the sexual content is pretty tame by today’s standards (and nothing compared to some of the content Bergman produced later), but what remains still shocking in its own way is the gut-wrenching display of two teenagers fulfilling their maturation by assuming the combative, self-destructive angst they inherited from their parents. Throughout the last act of the film, there exists the nagging implication that it is not only youth, but happiness itself, that is fleeting. Summer is but a brief, invigorating season; the rest is winter.
TOMORROW: July is “Summer” Movies Month continues with a Daniel Barnes review of the 1961 Yasujiro Ozu film The End of Summer.