Top 50 Countdown – #48

-48-

Smiles of a Summer Night

Year: 1955

Director: Ingmar Bergman

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Man to his wife: “I can tolerate my wife’s infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger.”

Same man to his mistress: “I can tolerate someone dallying with my mistress, but if anyone touches my wife, I become a tiger.”

Before acquiring his reputation as a director of heavy psychodramas, Bergman made Smiles of a Summer Night, a sophisticated bedroom farce/comedy of manners that has more in common with Lubitsch, Ophuls, and Renoir than with the existential angst of The Silence, The Seventh Seal or Persona. You won’t find the characters of Smiles of a Summer Night – a group of aristos gathered together for a midsummer weekend party at a country estate – suffering the tortures of the damned in some bleak, desolate landscape under a gloomy, overcast sky, or agonizing over the mute indifference of God, because they’re too preoccupied with their romantic/carnal endeavors to concern themselves with spiritual/metaphysical matters.

Still, Bergman packs this intricately plotted satirical romp – which celebrates the slyness with which women use their feminine wiles to manipulate men (“Men never know what’s good for them: we have to set them on the right track”) and pokes fun at the petty, immature competitive nature of men – with mismatched couples, scheming lovers, bed-hopping trysts and unrequited love, proving that Bergman, no misty-eyed romantic, was ever the keen observer of the battle-of-the-sexes – not to mention the battle-of-the-same-sexes.

And yet there is an optimism here completely lacking in his later work,¬†particularly the conclusion in which the¬†characters’ romantic entanglements are sorted out after they all partake of a magical wine – a sort of elixir of love – that contains “a drop of milk from the swelling breasts of a woman who has just given birth to her first child and a drop of seed from a young stallion.” Would that Ullmann and Josephson from Scenes from a Marriage had drunk this wine! Was this ending a concession to commercial considerations (after all, this film marked the end of Bergman’s apprenticeship period at Svensk Filmindustri)? It’s hard to say. But what’s not in doubt is that Smiles of a Summer Night, boasting superb comic performances and sparkling epigrammatic wit worthy of Oscar Wilde himself, is the funniest, most enjoyable film in Bergman’s oeuvre.

*Check out my complete list here.

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