Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Smiles of a Summer Night

It's been a while, my [nonexistent] readership, and if I say I haven't had the time to write, what I really mean is I haven't had the enthusiasm or energy. Lately, I've been branching out into other media like television—always frustrating, occasionally beguiling—and video games. Writing about and discussing movies has started to feel more and more like work. I would look at any old piece of writing and I'd get embarrassed. So I tried to outdo myself but it would be the same routine over and over. It took so long to write something only to have nobody read it, and it's even worse to realize the writing wasn't very good in the first place. It was all becoming an additional headache sucking the life out of me so I just dropped it.

I've still been watching movies—though not nearly as much as usual—and a lot of my attention has been on Ebert's Great Movie list. It's a good educational tool, with the occasionally bewildering choice but it's not why I'm writing now. What's really excited me enough to post is a rekindled interest in Ingmar Bergman and the delight that is Smiles of a Summer Night. It's one of those bourgeois-retreat-to-the-countryside satires like Rules of the Game, and like Renoir's, there's a fair share of couples shuffling around like dancers in the night. I think I actually prefer Smiles to the already impressive Rules, maybe because it's more playful. I'm sure the time and place where each were made had something to do with it. Rules was made in France headed for war whereas Smiles is a post-war film made in neutral Sweden. So I guess it makes sense that Rules ends with bullets and tragedy, while Smiles of a Summer Night subverts the tension of its climax; it turns conflict into a practical joke.

But just because it's light and seemingly carefree doesn't mean it's sacrificed its intelligence, nor Bergman's storytelling proficiency. For me, Bergman is one of the great storytellers because his movies just drip with an atmosphere that is immediately accessible. Even when things are odd or seem out of place, it's because they're meant to be that way and not because they're confusing or cluttered. It's very odd to see Henrik and Anne sitting together and think of them as step-mother and step-son, but then we remember that Fredrik remarried—Anne is simply referred to as his "young wife," which is all we really need to establish her. Indeed, the incongruity in their age and relationship becomes a driving force of the action to come. I suppose what makes Bergman's dialogue so much easier to follow is how focused it tends to be. Usually, it seems, there's one speaker and that's who we're meant to listen to. When I see a Fellini picture, I feel I need to see it three times just to catch what's being said. Things feel... cluttered in a Fellini movie, and while I hate to admit it, subtitles add to that difficulty. I believe Truffaut once told Hitchcock that you automatically lose 10% of the picture if you need subtitles. It's kind of a shame that I can't see La Dolce Vita like an Italian would, just as an Italian can't see McCabe & Mrs. Miller like I would.

Part of what makes a Bergman movie such a pleasure to watch is not only its simplicity, but the actors and actresses. A Bergman movie would fall apart without its cast; they're so good that a stupid American like me has no trouble picking up on the nuances and sarcasm in their exchanges. In Smiles of a Summer Night, you can feel how tense and awkward Henrik and Anne are with each other. His angst is typical of the Bergman to come, but it's understandable: his father is married to a woman younger than he. I'd be stressed too if I had the hots for my stepmother. Bergman seems to love populating his movies with unbelievably attractive women, and Smiles is no exception. Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck) is as charming as Debbie Reynolds and as sexy as Marilyn Monroe. She's a strong, experienced person able to stand on her own—a clear contrast to Anne's virginal fragility.

Contrast is one of those bread-and-butter components seen in a lot of film, but what I like about Bergman is his failure to live and die by that rule. I love how Carl-Magnus says something like "women can never seduce a man" while Fredrik says "it is always the man being seduced." Yet in spite of these differences, they are both men and don't live and die by their rules. Carl-Magnus' wife, Charlotte, indeed makes him jealous; she's not the good little wife that'll sit at home knitting while he fools around. Other bits of dialogue, like how Carl brazenly tells his wife: "I'll tolerate my wife's infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I'll become a tiger." But then he tells Desiree with same sense of entitlement: "I can tolerate someone dallying with my mistress, but if anyone touches my wife, I become a tiger." This callously masculine declaration to both is a front. Seeing him say it twice with almost identical phrasing is a playful, comic way of laying bare his insecurities. The front of machismo he puts up betrays itself; it fails to belie the desperation he has in maintaining that image of masculine independence.

I could continue, but I realize it's probably better to just see Smiles of a Summer Night. In a way, I'm starting to feel that dissecting a movie completely is a good way to destroy what was magical about it. It's better to be engrossed by Bergman's storytelling and his memorable characters; it's better to simply get swept up in the ride. I almost always get that feeling of "what the heck am I doing in life" when I watch a Bergman movie, but I never feel depressed after watching them. It's good to know you're not alone.