Summer with Monika Review

Although there had certainly been hints and flashes in his earlier films of the style and themes that would become characteristic of the director, it wasn’t until Ingmar Bergman was paired with a young 18 year old actress called Harriet Andersson on his daring 1953 film Summer with Monika that his work as a filmmaker started to come to fruition, opening up all the possibilities of the medium and demonstrating the unique relationship that could be drawn out between a director, an actor, a narrative and life itself.

Monika (Harriet Andersson) is fed-up with her job working in a grocery store, constantly subjected to unwelcome advances of the male co-workers, and is sick of the young men she goes out with, her behaviour with them all acquiring her a certain bad reputation. She’s also unhappy with her family situation and the behaviour of her drunken father. Finally pushed past her limit, she decides to run away with Harry (Lars Ekborg), a young man she has just met who is similarly disillusioned with his work and family life. Together they take a boat and leaving their troubles and civilisation behind, living in the wilderness of the Stockholm archipelago and fending for themselves. There they spend an idyllic few months together before real-life comes crashing back in on them.

With regards to the storyline, there would appear to be little to distinguish it from similar early Bergman stories of young people struggling to live their lives freely and find love outside of the restrictions placed on them by their small-town surroundings, social attitudes and unhappy family situations. At the time Bergman was greatly influenced by the Swedish novelist and playwright Hjalmar Bergman and had drawn on similar personal experiences of adolescent summers of love in Summer Interlude. Other young women caught in the trap of failing to live up to society’s expectations can be found in Bergman’s first feature Crisis, Port of Call, Prison and even in Torment, Bergman’s first filmed script. What distinguishes Summer with Monika from those earlier films is, quite simply, the presence of Harriet Andersson.

Dramatically, there is much to admire in the Bergman’s depictions of previous “bad girls” and in the performances of the likes of actresses Nine-Christine Jönsson and Maj-Britt Nilsson, but through Harriet Andersson, Bergman takes the character of Monika to another level entirely. In Andersson’s hands, Monika is not some fictional character devised to meet the requirements of a dramatic situation, she becomes a real three-dimensional person who doesn’t behave according to conventional expectations. Andersson plays with a remarkable naturalism and lack of self-consciousness, perfectly embodying the free-and-easy nature of her character in her daring escapades, and a wild hedonistic attitude expressed in her unselfconscious nudity, her smouldering cigarette-smoking and her passionate lovemaking with Harry in the outdoor wilderness.

Monika becomes then a force of nature, uncontrollable and wild, capable of intense passions, but also deeply unreliable, unpredictable and untameable. Her flying in the face of these expectations is embodied in one remarkable scene in particular towards the end of the film where she looks defiantly and directly into the camera and into the eye of the viewer, Bergman for the first time thereby breaking down the wall between a fictional representation of a character and the real person beneath. It is perhaps Monika’s defiant look more than the film’s uncommon though chaste nudity and the small acts of rebellion that was really the most shocking aspect of Summer with Monika (the film reportedly caused a great deal of problems for some members of the board of the Svensk Filmindustri) – a look that directly challenges the viewer to pass judgement on her if they dare, but not caring in the least if they do.

The impact of Summer with Monika and the step beyond conventional dramatic performance, characterisation and performance doesn’t just make its mark on Bergman’s subsequent work, opening up new cinematic potential, its influence can be seen on the French New Wave, praised as it was by Godard, and referenced by Truffaut in The 400 Blows. In his landmark debut film Truffaut’s own runaway bad-boy alter-ego Antoine Doinel is not only seen stealing a poster of the famous image of Harriet Andersson in Summer with Monika from a movie-house, but his gaze directly into the camera at the end of the film is a similar personal act of defiance and breaking of rules, as well as a look out to a new future of unlimited potential.

Summer with Monika is released in the UK by Tartan as part of their Bergman Collection. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, is in PAL format, but is not region encoded.

Like many of Bergman’s black-and-white films from the 1950s released by Tartan, the quality of the print on a film that is over 50 years old is remarkably good. There are certainly a few dustspots, minor marks and the occasional faint tramline scratch, but these are relatively infrequent. There is a nice tone to the film and excellent clarity, the image often showing superb detail. Blacks are strong, although they tend towards greyish tones in a couple of interior scenes. Transferred onto a single-layer disc, problems of macro-blocking often occur in Tartan’s Berman releases, but that is not the case here - the image remains very stable throughout. The transfer however performs better on a CRT television screen – on some monitors, cross-colouration of the analogue master and chroma problems can be evident.

The mono audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is mostly fine throughout. There is a little roughness, reverberation and sibilance at the edges, evident during louder passages of dialogue, but the majority of the film sounds clear with no issues of analogue noise or hiss.

English subtitles are provided in a white font and are clearly readable throughout.

There is not a large selection of extra features, but there’s enough here to provide some background and context to the film. The trailer reel for Tartan’s Ingmar Bergman Collection (2:57) shows a selection of the films available. Filmographies are included for Bergman, Ekborg and Andersson, who of course is marvellously still acting, recently appearing in Lars von Trier’s Dogville. The strengths of the film, its background and influence are covered in the 6 on-screen text pages of the Philip Strick Film Notes. A Stills Gallery consists of 6 promo photos for the film.

Summer with Monika remains one of Bergman’s most delightful films, striking a wonderful balance between dramatic narrative, lyrical reverie and boldness of experimentation, seemingly effortlessly breaking down the barrier between his work and the viewer, forcing them to see it as much more than a moralistic story. Much of this is down to the remarkable presence of Harriet Andersson as Monika, paving the way for many of those complex Bergman women in his later films.

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