Sommaren med Monika
***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Harriet Andersson, Lars Ekborg, Dagmar Ebbesen, Åke Fridell
screenplay by Per Anders Fogelström
directed by Ingmar Bergman
by Bryant Frazer In the annals of Early Bergman, Summer with Monika is The Big One--the international hit that established the striving Swede's cred as a major filmmaker. The irony is that it's among the slightest of his works. Its notoriety is mainly the result of a promotional campaign selling it as a sex film, using imagery that suggested a nudie pic rather than a melancholy (and cautionary) rumination on life, love, and gender relations. Of course, it wasn't just the trenchcoat brigade that turned out in force for a movie that was at one point evocatively retitled Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl(!). In fact, Monika was the one that made Woody Allen a lifelong Bergman fan. And it left a huge impression on Jean-Luc Godard, who, in 1958, wrote that Monika is "the most original film by the most original of directors," arguing that Bergman's loving photography of Harriet Andersson predated (and thus eclipsed) Fellini's widely lauded use of Guiletta Masina in a neo-realist mode in Nights of Cabiria, and that it surpassed in craft (mais oui!) Roger Vadim's employment of Bardot in And God Created Woman.
Ah, Harriet Andersson. It's impossible to reckon with Summer with Monika without paying due tribute to her aggressive pulchritude, which was Bergman's genius to recognize and exploit. As the girl in Monika's very familiar boy-meets-girl scenario, she's the prowling feral cat to co-star Lars Ekborg's domesticated hound of a boyfriend, Harry--the spicy meatball to his wet noodle. The two of them escape their lousy day jobs and retreat to the islands of the Stockholm archipelago (previously seen in Summer Interlude), where her earthy demeanour and easy nudity are a symbolic match for the simultaneously expansive and imposing natural landscapes. More, there's the look she has about her, big face, full lips, sleepy eyes, a feisty response to traditional notions of movie glamour circa 1953. It's not that she isn't gorgeous, or stacked--she's all that and more, an arthouse patron's wet dream. In the film's most famous shots, Gunnar Fischer's camera gazes upon her as though she were a feat of engineering he's been charged with documenting. You can only imagine the hubba-hubba noises that Bergman himself was making from the director's chair--the destruction of three weeks' worth of footage by the lab, necessitating an extended stay on the islands, was only the best kind of inconvenience. When Bergman's then-wife (his third) learned what the two of them had been up to out on that island, she told him (in his words) to go to hell.
Bergman milks the city/country dichotomy for all it's worth, depicting the couple's inevitable return to civilization with a gloomy sense of foreboding, the city's architecture closing in around their small boat like gnarled, dead trees stretching their limbs towards the windows of a carriage bound for Castle Dracula. As it turns out, though Monika may be made into a mother, she cannot be tamed. Dear Harry isn't nearly enough by himself to satisfy her appetites, and the city offers too many opportunities for a bad girl to disappear into the night. Here, Bergman indulges in some thick stereotyping of gender roles, a harbinger of the unhappy marriages that were a hallmark of his later films. (The screenplay is credited solely to Per Anders Fogelström, who turned the same material into a novel, but Bergman is thought to have helped shape it.) The man is the very picture of repressed emotion, daring only to topple and shatter a single piece of glassware when he's fired from his dead-end job. Monika, however, is all animal instinct, acting on her most superficial impulses. At one point, Bergman contrives to have her crouch in the wild grass, gnawing at a massive chunk of red meat. The message is clear: You can never have her, silly man; you can only hope to brush against her as she powers through your life, leaving melancholy wreckage in her wake. In the final reels, once autumn has passed them by and winter's grip has set in, Monika abandons the nest, setting out on her own with nary a word of goodbye. Harry, meanwhile, finds his destiny bearing Harry Jr. in his arms and sporting a gentleman's fedora. He's stopped dead in front of a mirror on the street, startled at what he's become: a schnook.
All this cautionary beware-of-woman hoo-hah is easily read as axe-grinding--or perhaps just a really good angle on the classroom abstinence-advocacy film. As Bergman primers go, Summer Interlude is an equally lovely film and a more complete introduction to his pet themes, and I think I ultimately prefer it. It would be easy for me to dismiss Summer with Monika as a trifle out of keeping with the director's later, more legitimately harrowing work if it weren't for a single, striking shot of Andersson, caught in bad-girl mode, staring directly out of the screen as the lighting behind her is faded slowly to black--an effect Bergman certainly borrowed from the theatre, but one that is still bracing on the screen. Godard read in that image a sort of self-loathing, arguing, touchingly, "It is the saddest shot in the history of cinema." I see in her glare something more ambiguous than Godard's Little Girl Lost--the challenge suggested by the plumes of cigarette smoke hissing from her nostrils, and then the invitation (or is it an apology?) that seems to be forthcoming as her lips part subtly and she shifts slightly in the frame, as if moved by invisible tremors of excitement (or is it regret?). Her unspoken line of dialogue: "What are you lookin' at?"
That single shot does something remarkable: it stops the narrative dead, forcing viewers to think specifically about the character. I'm not sure if a narrative film had used a similar gambit previously. (Of course there's that remarkable wordless close-up on another great Swede, Garbo, finally the figurehead of her own seafaring vessel at the end of Queen Christina, but it's not really the same.) What you make of Monika depends on what you bring into the theatre with you, and in these few seconds of screentime, she kindly gives you a chance to stew in your own perceptions. Do you see her as the sexist construct of a frustrated director presiding over the dissolution of his third marriage? A symptom of a cinematic patriarchy that favours the male gaze and treats woman as the unknowable Other? Or simply the emblem of a certain youthful restlessness that wouldn't be satisfied by a threesome with James Dean and Robert Mitchum, let alone a season in the sack with this feckless young Swede? Is she the victim, somehow, of her own expectations? In that long moment, Monika accommodates them all.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion brings its A game to their 1.37:1, 1080p transfer of Summer with Monika. Scanned at 2K from the original camera negative, it exhibits a richness of tone and a fullness of detail that weren't quite achieved in the Blu-ray presentation of the earlier Summer Interlude, which was transferred from two dupes. Dynamic range is terrific--there are no crushed blacks or clipped highlights here--and noise-reduction and other filtering techniques left no traces that I could see. Damage to the physical film itself is barely in evidence, with only the occasional fleck of dust or dirt intruding on the image. A layer of 35mm film grain is basically unnoticeable when the camera is moving but comes into focus in many of the movie's static landscape shots. It's hardly distracting. Slightly more eye-catching are the light shadows or stains that can very occasionally be seen dancing across the picture; I assume they're remnants of problems that were addressed during a detailed restoration process, judging from the fact that the heavy-iron compositing systems (Nuke, the Quantel iQ, and the Autodesk Flame) name-checked in the liner notes went unmentioned in the Summer Interlude book. Anyway, it looks great--maybe not quite as good as The Seventh Seal, but in the ballpark.
Audio is also a cut above, having been transferred from 35mm mag tracks. The uncompressed monaural track (24-bit/48kHz PCM) does reveal the limitations of the original sound elements, though I'm confident the film has never sounded better. The new English subtitle translation is terrific, as has become the norm for Criterion. I don't speak Swedish, so I can't attest to any misrepresentations of the dialogue, but I suspect that whatever it may give up in the slavish-accuracy department is made up easily with natural, unforced language choices that rarely draw attention to themselves.
Supplements are so-so by Criterion standards. I confess I spent long moments mashing buttons on my remote control--going so far as to switch Blu-ray players--because I assumed the first one was having trouble accessing the alternate audio until I realized that the disc doesn't even have a measly commentary track. (What's up with that, Criterion?) We get another Bergman intro (four minutes) originally shot on PAL video for Swedish television wherein the aged director describes his fondness for Summer with Monika after so many decades, plus a fine 25-minute contemporary interview, shot in HD, in which Criterion's resident Bergman scholar Peter Cowie questions Andersson herself, who's aged pretty gracefully. ("It was forbidden to look into the camera!" she says when asked about that famous close-up. "When we shot it...he said, 'Turn your head and look right into the camera.' I did what he said and looked but thought, 'Is he mad?'")
A 30-minute short feature (complete with typically erudite Scorsese intro) titled "Images from the Playground" collects behind-the-scenes footage shot mainly by Bergman himself with a 9.5mm home-movie camera. The quality of this footage was never going to be great (it's very grainy, without much dynamic range), and while the HD video transfer is more than adequate, the footage is distressed and scratched and some shots have the harshness of video about them, as if the sharpness algorithms were turned way up. Still, it's an undeniably historic artifact and worth sitting through for candid on-set glimpses of the likes of Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Liv Ullman, Max von Sydow, and more.
The disc does have a 13-minute short that should be a slam-dunk--a look at exploitation maven Kroger Babb's wildly misleading those-sexy-Swedes distribution strategy for Monika on its initial U.S. release, before the sober party-poopers at Janus Films got their mitts on it. Sadly, I had to keep reminding myself that this talking-head and archival-imagery affair was a Criterion extra, since it plays like one of those excruciatingly polite throwaway featurettes that litter Hollywood-studio DVD releases. Emerson College associate professor Eric Schaefer yaps on for half the short's running time about anything but Monika, offering a fairly dull recitation of the history of the alternate distribution market for anti-drug and sex-hygiene films. The piece perks up when he finally gets around to the Bergman film, and the excerpts from Babb's version of Monika, dubbed in English and given a Hollywood score by composer Les Baxter, are weirdly tantalizing. It's too bad that Criterion didn't do the obvious thing and include this version of Monika in its entirety, à la the highly instructive "Love Conquers All" re-edit of Brazil.
Most inexplicably, this feature contains a snippet of film showing Andersson having her cardigan pulled down her torso and then holding her bare breasts as the camera zooms out to bring them into frame--a more explicit image than anything that appears in Summer with Monika proper. But this eye-opening footage passes without comment, despite the questions it raises. To wit: Is Criterion's transfer a censored print? If not, how did Babb get hold of material that Bergman cut from his film? And how explicit did Bergman's discarded footage get, anyway? The questions have value beyond what you could call their obvious prurient appeal, and it's frustrating that so much time is spent putting Babb's release in historical context while so little is spent looking at what it actually contained. It's a rare #criterionfail, and it brings the whole release down a notch.
The liner notes comprise a nice essay by Laura Hubner that spends a lot of time considering Monika's character and how she fits into the overall Bergman oeuvre; an edited version of that rapturous Godard review of the film; and a bit of PR fluff from Svensk Filmindustri dating back to the movie's original release in which, ho ho, Bergman interviews himself.