On the heels of Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 romantic lark, Smiles of a Summer Night (a triumph at the Cannes Film Festival), The Seventh Seal (1957) may be the film that certified his international prominence. But it was Bergman’s 1953 feature, Summer with Monika, his 12th film in eight years, that signaled the first pivotal shift of his career, at least in retrospect. Intrigued by an idea from novelist Per Anders Fogelström, Bergman enlisted the writer to craft a screenplay based on two young lovers, adrift and disillusioned in a state of economic and social stasis, which Fogelström would then turn into a novel published just prior to the film’s release. (Some have suggested that Fogelström, who already worked with Bergman on the 1950 Lars-Eric Kjellgren feature While the City Sleeps, had a novel in place prior to the script.) Starring Lars Ekborg and Harriet Andersson (who happened to have an uncredited role in While the City Sleeps), this explicitly-defined three-act chronicle follows 17-year-old Monika Eriksson, a stockroom worker at a grungy wholesale grocer, and her fleeting fling with 19-year-old Harry Lund, who works in an equally oppressive glass shop.
Opening in a dank and dreary setting, a foggy waterfront where the sun struggles to seep through a clouded Stockholm sky, the initial somber tone of Summer with Monika is illustrated by cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s consistent collaborator in that department through 1960. It’s a pervasive bleakness, one that stalks characters inside and out, and one that will be recalled in marked contrast to the scenic, seasonal respite to come. It’s also an expressive backdrop for the more proximate features representing all that Monika and Harry hope to leave behind. In their impoverished tenement existence, Monika’s hectic household is narrowly held together by an alcoholic, abusive father and a beleaguered mother, while Harry’s home, less combustible, is no less demoralizing, as he lives alone with his widowed, ailing father. At work and in public, the teens are assailed by downtrodden, cruel co-workers and shallow, discouraging individuals consumed by their routine drudgery. This is what they are up against in Summer with Monika.
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Within this insular community, it’s unlikely Harry and Monika have never met, but their first conversation is treated rather like an introduction, presenting each of them fresh to one another and to the viewer. The primary encounter depicts significant character traits, such as Harry’s preference for coffee (the older denizens have their beer) and his boyish awkwardness (fumbling to light Monika’s cigarette). For Monika, obviously better looking than her conditions can handle (and she knows it), her establishment is far more effusive. “Let’s go away and never come back,” she proposes on an impulsive whim, her impetuousness destined to be the source of their greatest joys and sorrows. There’s little doubt she will have a problematic influence on Harry: meaningful, ecstatic, ultimately disastrous. For now, though, they are instantaneously allied in their respective and mutual daydreams. Head in hands, drifting, holding up traffic, there is the sense Harry could live on with his unrealized illusions; for Monika, spurred on by the glamour of Hollywood movies and the fashions teased in storefront windows, her life at a distance, obstructed by frustrating screens, simply must be transcended — she requires direct engagement.
Summer with Monika was widely promoted with a conspicuous focus on Andersson’s naturally alluring aura, and as she candidly fusses over her dress, her hair, and makeup, Monika is surely a provocatively enticing figure, snapping on her chewing gum with an insolent smirk. However, regarded as a “floozy” (and inexplicably deemed “chubby”), she suffers for her appearance and suggestive frivolity, enduring pinches and gropes at work and carrying the baggage of a certain reputation. Although there are allusions to Sweden’s star export Greta Garbo, Monika is more like Germany’s Marlene Dietrich, in the way her trenchant glances and elusive smiles seem to issue moral challenges and sexual incitements. Harry, meanwhile, has his comportment thoroughly whittled down, to the point where his every remark is submitted for her approval and permission (“You may kiss me now,” Monika affirms at one point, maintaining her domination).
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Rejoicing in their passionate elevation, with typical teenage carousing, Monika and Harry play house in a boat’s cabin — dressing and undressing in front of each other, breaking down sexual barriers and erasing shame (hers dissolves easier than his). But their social status also proves decisive: what they do is as much against those around them as it is for their own satisfaction. “We’ve rebelled, Monika,” Harry later declares, “against all of them!” In one of Bergman’s relatively rare early instances of symbolic composition, Harry is framed behind a row of delicate vases. As he is reprimanded for his poor work performance in Summer with Monika, the tension of the situation is intensified by the fragility of his and the camera’s placement. Nearly throwing one of the glass pieces, he opts to push one over instead, and with that final action, the embryonic affair of Monika and Harry — spontaneous, too fast for their own good and hardly convincing — is irrevocably confirmed, for better or worse.
The transitional second section of Summer with Monika, generally its most discussed and depicted, takes place in an idyllic, sun-kissed paradise, on the Stockholm archipelago where the chirping birds provide an aural counterpoint to the blaring foghorns that reverberated through the opening portions of the film. In this site, similarly celebrated in Bergman’s Ship to India (1947), Thirst (1949), Summer Interlude (1951) and Waiting Women (1952), Harry and Monika have found a peaceful reprieve. With barefoot splashing and barely-clothed frolicking, Bergman transfers a repressed emphasis on external forces and internal distress to something unequivocally unreserved. As they traverse the terrain or bask in the summer’s warmth, Ekborg and Andersson deliver invigorating physical performances; half-lit in the city’s shadows, their faces are clean and clear; their bodies are vigorous, like crashing waves on the rocky shore; they dance, pound their chests and shout with pure, primal fervor.
But like the emblematic solstice itself (correlative seasons often a standard Bergman trope), this liberation will end. Harry and Monika try social interaction, briefly attending a midsummer dance, but they quickly move on, regressing back to the two of them, confessing their anxieties, proclaiming their desires and credulously making plans for work and marriage. “I want summer to go on just like this,” states a capricious Monika, who then reveals her pregnancy with slight indifference. Harry’s instantly practical familial concerns, so drab at the moment and so trifling, are compounded by enveloping boredom and desperation. Their clothes have become torn and tattered and they run out of food (save for mushrooms, lots of mushroom). They resort to stealing milk and produce, and Monika makes off with a hunk of roast, pilfering it from a neighbor who chides her with one of the film’s most prescient lines, a wake-up call to the real world — “Think it’s that easy, do you?” She prowls through the forest grasping the meat like a feral barbarian; she and Harry have gone from optimistic settlers to distressed scavengers. They quarrel and Harry gives feeble reassurances. The thought of going back to Stockholm devastates Monika, and though Harry seems the more pragmatic one, she too is realistic in her own way, for she knows exactly how things will play out. Their life will not be his domesticated ideal.
The despondent voyage home is an ominous portrait of despair, harshly inscribed with a foreboding melancholy. Soon with child — a baby girl, appropriately named June — Harry and Monika are drained by the crying infant, their weakened patience, depleted funds, exhaustion and his overwork. Bitter acrimony and blame yields expected infidelity; an intense breakdown ensues. Life has been sapped from their being, a reduction most notable in Andersson’s composure. Undeniably the central focus of Summer with Monika, Andersson’s overt sex appeal somewhat minimizes her remarkable range in the film, her seamlessly oscillating moods and subtle facial intimations. With her captivating screen presence, desirability and talent, it’s little wonder she and Bergman fell in love during production (while the romance wouldn’t last, their work together would, climaxing with her agonizing turn in 1972’s Cries & Whispers). When Monika asks Harry, “Why do some people have all the luck while others are miserable?” her honest and pertinent question goes without a satisfying answer (it will never have one). Refusing to therefore be burdened by poverty and monotony, her suspect choices constitute one of Bergman’s strongest and most independent female characters. Discontent with such a stolid, conservative reality, Monika predictably acts out, the culmination of her rebellion being the film’s famous 30-second stare of defiance. As she takes a light from another paramour, she glares at the camera, daring the audience to judge her behavior. It’s a challenging, self-conscious shot, the type Bergman would not again exploit until the 1960s, with films like Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Persona (1960).
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Ekborg, who had previously starred alongside Andersson in U-Boat 39 (1952) and Anderssonskans Kalle (1950), is admittedly given less to work with in his orthodox character. But it is Harry whose dejected final state suggests an alteration in Bergman’s work, one pointing toward an adulthood marred by sex and pleasure, yes, but also violence and psychological torment. (While Harry receives the ultimate sympathy, there remains a lingering concern for Monika’s eventual componence; it’s just a matter of time.) That said, though, this classically Bergmanesque solemnity, which now defines the revered auteur, was not in itself a hot ticket item, not in 1953. So, for its global distribution, particularly in America, a different tactic was taken.
It wasn’t at all uncommon for European art films to be sold with an exploitation slant, so that’s exactly what producer Kroger Babb did. As the presenter of Summer with Monika’s American release, he dubbed the film in English, added a jazzy score, cut it down to about an hour — losing the more philosophical musings and emphasizing the sensational bits — and consigned a new title, the far more tantalizing (and now quite comical) Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl! Of course, looking back more than 60 years later, in the distinguished light of Bergman’s illustrious career, such manipulation is hard to fathom. Yet it’s easy to see why it happened. Andersson is emphatically presented as an erotic object — as Bergman himself stated, “There’s never been a girl in Swedish films who radiated more uninhibited erotic charm than Harriet” — and her lusty façade was a readily available commodity. Star mixed with role when posters proclaimed Andersson “as/is” the wayward Monika: licentious, scintillating, blatantly stretching with her shirt open, flashing her bra, writhing with dangerous intentions. The salaciousness of Summer with Monika was inherent in the material from the start. Before production even began, Svensk Filmindustri authorities considered the project immoral and indecent, for its sexual frankness and overt naughtiness. But as far as the completed picture, those features could also be commercially bankable, especially the film’s literally revealing midsection, with nude silhouettes, skinny dipping and exposed sunbathing.
This approach might have boosted the box office return, but it would never have shaped long-term consideration. In general, Summer with Monika only received a more serious historical reassessment in view of Bergman’s later accomplishments. However, the liberating critical squad of the French New Wave immediately saw the film as something exceptional in its own right. François Truffaut gave the picture a nod in his 1959 breakthrough, The 400 Blows, and in 1958 (apparently overlooking The Seventh Seal), Jean-Luc Godard decreed Summer with Monika, “the most original film of the most original of directors.” With this film, indeed, over the course of its 96-minute runtime, one sees a progression from the perfectly capable Bergman before, to the more profoundly reflective Bergman to come. Certainly, there would still be lighter fare in the Bergman canon — the back-to-back A Lesson in Love (1954) and Dreams (1955), as two immediate examples — but like the tragically quixotic youth of Summer with Monika, Bergman’s cinema had entered a phase of pronounced maturity.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.