Summer with Monika (aka Sommaren med Monika )
One of the problems with reviewing "Summer with Monika" almost 60 years after its release is that it's breathtaking originality has become a part of our film lexicon. There's an old joke about someone who's taken to see a production of "Hamlet" for the first time. After it was over, he was asked how he liked it. "It's full of cliché's!" he said. "I can't understand why everyone raves about it." "Cliché?" he's asked. "What do yo mean?" "Well, 'to be or not to be!' Duh! How many times have you heard that? Or 'Alas, poor Yorick' -- that's been around for centuries!"
Indeed. The reason Shakespeare is quoted so much is that he's so good. So let it be with Bergman. "Summer with Monika" has many scenes which are familiar now to us but which were startlingly new in 1953, breaking rules with the full intention of shattering them. For starters, let's look at
looking at the camera. The convention was for the cast never to acknowledge the presence of the camera, leaving the audience to believe it wasn't there, that the audience was directly watching and experiencing the scenes projected on the silver screen. If you've been watching the movie, the context here is very disturbing, and Monika's frank gaze at you, directly at you the viewer, is both disturbing and challenging. Monika the character is breaking the rules by committing adultery, and she's challenging you to take her to task. She's flouting the rules openly, and she's not going to take your objections. And Bergman is breaking the rules by having his character stare out at you in confrontation and in conspiracy with his rule-breaking. Bergman is challenging you directly to acknowledge the wrongful deeds of his character yet still accept her as a human being. "Yes, Monika has done this; so what?"
Adding to the stare is Bergman's use of music. It's sprightly jazz, bright, fast, and happy. However, as Monika's stare continues and unsettles us, the music fades a little and we become aware of a humming sound; something sours in the sound of the jazz. Underneath the freedom of the drums and clarinet, something lurks that suggests that all is not so happy after all.
This had never been done before. When Fosse did it in "Cabaret" twenty years later no one was shocked; the stare into the camera with souring music has become a part of our vocabulary. Woody Allen mentions Bergman often, and he mentions seeing "Summer with Monika" in his late teens and how it affected him in
video on YouTube. It's sad to say, but Bergman's freshness in 1953 had become our cliché only twenty years later.
"Summer with Monika" stars Harriet Andersson in the title role and Lars Ekborg as Harry, Monika's lover for a summer. Monika is a curvaceous 18-year-old, and Lars is 20, and they meet in a coffee house, two loose ships adrift the night. Monika is smitten by Lars because he doesn't put his hands all over her the way the other guys do; she sees him as sweet. Both have jobs they hate, home lives that are stultifying, and neither has much money. They decide to run away. Harry's father has a boat, so they take it for the summer and visit the islands around their native town of Stockholm. They challenge the status quo, exclaiming that they'll never knuckle under to the grind of everyday life like all the grownups have. During their summer of love, they fight occasionally but always make up, they live for the present, and the trip seems romantic without many struggles or tribulations. They enjoy freedom, sun, and each other. Of course, they run out of money, and they're reduced to scavenging mushrooms and stealing food from farmers.
And Monika becomes pregnant. They talk about how they'll be different from their parents, Harry will get a job, Monika will stay at home and raise little Harry, Jr., and they'll still go out and dance and see movies. Harry actually grows up, and we are impressed with his new-found maturity as little Monika's father (it was a girl). He gets a job, goes to school at night and studies to get ahead at work. We see from a scene between his fellow workers that he's changed completely from the slacker he was at the beginning of the movie, and his workers recommend him for advancement. Monika, however, is dissatisfied. Harry is spending his time and energies at work and at school and not enough money on her. She buys a new suit for herself instead of paying the rent. Harry comes home a day early from an extended work trip and finds Monika in bed with his rival from before that summer with Monika.
One of the things I like about many Swedish films is the "wrap around." In "The Emigrants," directed by Jan Troell, Max von Sydow plays an emigrant to America who goes to seek the wilderness. At the beginning of the film, he finds his wilderness, and we see him falling asleep alone in a forest to the sound of loons. At the end of the film, we hear the sound of axes ringing as his fellow villagers are using them to chop down the trees and build cabins -- the wilderness-seekers have destroyed it forever by their very act of moving there.
In "Summer with Monika," our wrap around starts with Monika before she meets Harry staring into a mirror as a few drunks stagger around in the reflected background, and Monika adjusts her beret to make herself more becoming. At the end, we have the same mirror and the same drunks, but Harry is holding his infant daughter and he's become his father -- nothing has changed despite his summer with Monika other than the grind continues in the new generation. But Harry's stare into the camera isn't the challenge that we had from Monika. Harry's stare is his acknowledgement that he's his dreams are shattered, that he has become a part of the rat-race. Harry lost.