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.
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.
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