In many ways, 'Smiles of a Summer Night' can be seen — and enjoyed — as Ingmar Bergman's true directorial debut. Although already a prolific filmmaker in Sweden, this silly comedy about romance is the motion picture that finally brought him into the limelight with international success. His earlier works were box-office bombs, and in all honesty, miserably downbeat works with some intriguing visual aspects, displaying promise and a keen, artistic eye. This was to be Bergman's last film with Svensk Filmindustri Productions, his one final shot at making a marketable picture. Thankfully, 'Smiles' was a sensation. And as Pauline Kael gleefully suggested in her review (and I'm heavily paraphrasing here), his previous efforts all lead him to this one moment when visual style and story finally meet in a harmonious union.
The plot, written by Bergman himself, is structured very much like a stage play, where space is only occupied by two or three characters at a time. This includes the framing of actors and camera placement. If a scene requires more people, we still only see two or three take turns dominating the frame. And like a stage comedy, the narrative feels episodic, moving from one situational set piece to another. The humor comes from the witty dialogue and the clever back-and-forth of characters, a capricious group of individuals caught in love's more fickle and impulsive characteristics. Love and relationships are treated like a game or competition between these people, an objective which can be strategically planned for. Or as Pat Benatar once sang, "Love is a Battlefield."
Demonstrating this play-acting aspect — and of course Bergman’s natural talent with expressive imagery — the director has our main protagonists, Fredrick (Gunnar Björnstrand) and Anne Egerman (Ulla Jacobsson), attend the theatre. When the curtains rise, indicating the show's about to begin, stage lights shine back on the married couple sitting in the proscenium arch, signaling to viewers the plot’s chief focus is only now commencing. The scene is also suggesting the theatricality of life itself — that fiction can function as a complement to reality. Or as it is more popularly understood, art imitates life and vice versa. Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck), who is the husband's former lover, is the show's star attraction, and the role affords her some choice words we later see play out as part of her own personality, again hinting at the blurred line between the stage and life.
Later, halfway into the story, like a kind of second act, the Egermans, along with Fredrick's son, the minister-to-be Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam), reunite with Desiree for a weekend getaway at her mother's country house. There, they meet another troubled couple in the Count (Jarl Kulle) and his wife, Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist). During dinner, Mrs. Armfeldt (Naima Wifstrand) sits at the table as if a very wise matriarch sharing her insight with the others lined on the opposite end. It's another exquisitely staged sequence from Bergman, indicating to audiences that despite their ages — Anne and Henrik are significantly younger than the rest — they are all children when it concerns matters of the heart. And while Desiree and Charlotte turn the weekend into a competitive game of love, their rewards are men of ultimately little worth.
On a deeper level, exhibiting once again Bergman's genius as a filmmaker, this motley troupe is also understood as representations of human behavior when in love. Men can be combative womanizers like the Count; ambivalent, foolishly assured husbands like Fredrick; or insecure, self-effacing wrecks as in Henrik. Women, on the other hand, are more complex with a variety of personalities. One can possess Mrs. Armfeldt's sensibleness and knowledge or act inexperienced and chaste like Anne. Then there's the young, free-spiritedness of Petra (Harriet Andersson), the bitterly jealous Charlotte, or the glamorously calculating Desiree. It's a story with a great deal of humor and intelligence, a remarkable motion picture from one of the most talented filmmakers ever.
'Smiles of a Summer Night' is a wickedly marvelous Swedish comedy that carries an equally engaging seriousness to the plot. It's not only one of Ingmar Bergman's more memorable and influential works, but it's also one which saved his career and made possible the future film endeavors we now love and admire.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Smiles of a Summer Night' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #237) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a 24-page booklet with pictures of the film and features an insightful essay entitled "Midsummer Merry-Go-Round" by John Simon and a reprint of Pauline Kael's original review. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options while music plays in the background.
Taken from a new 35mm print — presumably, once removed from the original camera negative — this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode of Bergman's classic comedy romance looks quite beautiful if only slightly troubled.
Presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the high-def transfer shows a great deal of fine texture in clothing and facial complexions. Small object detailing in the Victorian architecture and random household items are distinct and plainly visible. Black levels are often lush and profound, providing the image with some appealing depth, but there are times when shadows can be overwhelming in a few spots. Contrast is mostly well-balanced and comfortably bright, but a couple moments of negligible clipping and very slight posterization are noticeable if one were so inclined to look for it. However, it's nothing which really takes away from enjoying the presentation.
Aside from a scene or two when grain appears a tad too noisy, 'Smiles of a Summer Night' should leave fans with a satisfied smile.
For the audio, Criterion has also remastered the soundtrack for this PCM monaural presentation.
Overall, it's a very nice track with strong acoustical presence and wonderful fidelity, but the original design doesn't really offer much to impress. Vocals and character interaction are lucid and perfectly clear from beginning to end. Being a film where the comedy comes from dialogue exchange, it's no surprise the focus of the mix is in the language and wording of the characters. This means the background world is mostly silent with practically no activity at all and dynamic range is generally narrow. Even the few bits of music and action are displayed in a very confined space. But this is clearly not issue with the lossless codec. It's a limitation found in the source, and this audio track does a fine job of replicating that, sounding quite nice and admirable.
Criterion ports over the same assortment of bonus material as the 2004 DVD release.
Seen as his first international success, the one which garnered him worldwide attention, Ingmar Bergman shows he has the talent for light romantic comedies with 'Smiles of a Summer Night.' Though vastly different from his better known, more drearily philosophical projects, the film also displays a serious undertone with this story about fickle love. The Blu-ray arrives with a great picture quality and a good audio presentation. Coming from The Criterion Collection, the bonus material feels a bit lacking for a Swedish classic and from one of the world's most talented auteurist, but all things considered, the movie is a remarkable and intelligent comedy, making the overall package worthy of a recommendation.