Today's audiences know Swedish writer/director Ingmar Bergman as an internationally recognized cinema master, but in the early 1950s he was just another down-on-his-luck European filmmaker. His marriage was breaking up, he was ill (or so he thought) and he was on the outs with his production company after two box-office bombs. His response? To write the comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende). The film won at the 1955 Cannes Festival and propelled Bergman to international fame.
"This was a terrible time in my life," he later told a college crowd during a lecture. "I was extremely depressed ... I went away to Switzerland and had two alternatives: write Smiles of a Summer Night or kill myself."
Smiles is an erotic comedy, its heat coming from unfulfilled sexual desire, its laughs from cutting wit.
The premise is simple: A group of men and women spend a weekend in the country. There's a cheating husband and his still-virgin bride, the man's angry, jealous son and the husband's mistress, a vain, heartless stage actress. It's a complicated household; they chide and shame each other with just a punctuated look.
When the husband and wife take an afternoon nap, he starts caressing her. Half-asleep, he moves closer to her, stroking her hair. She gently pulls his hand from her shoulder towards her breast but stops when he mumbles his mistress's name.
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At one point, the mistress says that there are three balls involved in every romantic relationship - the heart, words and the loins. Smiles of a Summer Night is seemingly focused entirely on the loins, but in fact, is equally centered on the heart. The film is too smart to listen to the words.
DVD extras: The disc features an introduction to the film by Ingmar Bergman, a conversation between writer Jõrn Donner and Bergman expert Peter Cowie, and the original theatrical trailer. The film has been digitally restored (the Blu-ray edition also includes an improved soundtrack). There's a booklet with a 1961 review by film critic Pauline Kael and an essay by theater and film critic John Simon.
Part of the Criterion Collection, Smiles of a Summer Night is available now.