In the opening credits of Smiles of a Summer Night, a title announces that it as "en romantish komedi av Ingmar Bergman." By the end of the film, however, it's fairly obvious that we have not been watching a "romantic comedy" in anything close to the conventional sense. Every time I see the film aired or read a review of it or any reference to it, I get the feeling that it's being misrepresented. Even the works inspired by it fail to capture its unique tone. Few people seem to notice how Bergman's film barely lives up to its title - there's very little smiling in this summer night.
Not that this disqualifies the film from greatness. It is justly identified as a masterpiece, one that occupies a place among the few dozen greatest films ever. Its uniqueness, in fact, derives from its exquisite blend of elements, its fine control over a surprisingly wide range of sometimes violent emotions, from jealousy to bereavement, from the murderous to the suicidal to the pinnacle of true love's fulfillment. All the while we wait for the romantic comedy to appear, we are subjected to something that is deceptively romantic and deceptively comic. Bergman, who would become famous for a quite acrid view of the interplay of men and women, is subtly and brilliantly criticizing our notions of love, sexuality, and the truth.
Frederik Egerman has a very young wife, Anne, who thinks of him as a darling uncle. And he has a very young son who thinks he loves no one but God. Fredrik has a former mistress, Desiree, a successful actress, whom he forsook for his utterly chaste marriage. He thinks he doesn't love her - cannot love her - because her low social status disqualifies her as proper marriage material. Desiree - who comes closest to a master/mistress of ceremonies in the film - has a young son whom she named Fredrik, but doesn't think the man respects her enough to make an "honest woman" of her. Desiree is also the mistress of Count Malcolm, who has a contemptuous view of both wives and mistresses. His wife, Charlotte, loves him painfully - since he cheats on her openly.
On a visit to her old mother in the country, Desiree conspires to bring everyone's latent feelings into the magical light of a midsummer night. She tells her mother to invite everyone to her house for a soiree - an evening that will last until morning. By the time it is over, truth has prevailed over delusion, old relationships end or are renewed, and new ones begin. The film ends a bit far from happily. Bergman clearly had scant use for what is conventionally known as happiness. his characters are all either pitiable or contemptible, despite the thoroughly neat tying up of all the story's loose ends. The only characters that are neither sadists nor masochists are the servants, Frid and Petra.
And Bergman indulges in the hoary old saw that bestows mastery on the mistress, the literary and theatrical conceit of women's superiority over men. Throughout Smiles of a Summer Night there is the suggestion that only women know what's best for men. At one point, Desiree delivers the line,"Men never know what's right for them. We have to set them on the right track." There are even a few hints that loving a man is beneath a woman. There is this exchange between Desiree and her ancient mother when she has the idea of inviting everyone to her summer house:
Desiree: How could a woman ever love a man? Can you tell me that?
Mother: A woman's view is seldom based on aesthetics. And one can always turn out the light."
And when Charlotte visits Anne, she suddenly launches into one of the most painful admissions of her enslavement by love:
"[referring to Count Malcolm] I hate him. I hate him, hate him, hate him, hate him! Men are horrid, vain, and conceited. And they have hair all over their bodies. He smiles at me, kisses me, he comes to me at night, driving me insane with his caresses. He speaks kindly to me and brings me flowers, always yellow roses. He talks about his horses, his women and duels, about his soldiers and his hunting - talks and talks and talks! Love is a loathsome business. In spite of everything, I still love him. I would do anything for him. Anything, do you understand? Just so he'll pat me on the head and say,'That's a good dog.'"
None of this is in the least convincing as an argument, except for the fact that the film - as with nearly all of Bergman's films - is dominated by the powerful actresses at his disposal. Smiles of a Summer Night belongs to Eva Dahlbeck, who plays Desiree like she was poured into the role. Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max von Sydow and Erland Josefsson are splendid actors, but Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Bibi Andersson are the gist - and the grist - of Bergman's films.
By the time the summer night - and the film - is over, we have the feeling that we've been up all night, but we can't go to bed when the sun, which had never set, cannot rise. It's too late for breakfast, and far too early for a midnight snack. The film leaves us in a quandary: where do we go from here?