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Blu-ray Review: SUMMER WITH MONIKA (The Criterion Collection)

Joshua Brunsting

May 31st, 2012

Summer With Monika

For many filmmakers, the art of crafting a feature film is a very singular act: Get in, get out, change up cast and crew for the next feature, repeat. But with each great filmmaker comes a great collaborator. Spielberg with John Williams, Lars von Trier with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kubrick with novels are just a few examples of how filmmaking is truly a team sport. However, there may be very few more successful and worthwhile collaborations than director Ingmar Bergman and his long time director of photography, Gunnar Fischer.

Working on a handful of films together such as SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT and THE SEVENTH SEAL, the pair have created some of the most iconic and isolating dramas of their time, and are the epitome of what black and white films and photography can truly do. And SUMMER WITH MONIKA is a perfect example of just how potent that type of photography can be.

MONIKA stars Harriet Andersson in what would ultimately be her star making turn (and the first of many films the pair would make including the underrated gem SAWDUST AND TINSEL), and follows the story of Monika and Harry as they meet, fall in love, have a child, and find their relationship ultimately unravel in what was to date Bergman’s broadest romantic drama of his career.

Both of the leads are utterly breathtaking, with Andersson shining in the titular role. She imbues the role with a raw sense of burgeoning sexuality while also having a strong air of innocence, giving a multilayered performance that would be a predecessor to a cavalcade of strong female leads that would find themselves as the focus of Bergman’s films. Lars Ekborg is great as Monika’s other half, the blasé young man who catches her fancy. The two have fantastic chemistry together, and really come off as an equally matched pair of opposites; however, this makes their ultimate romantic demise all the more affecting.

The real star, however, is Fischer. The black and white here is truly powerful, giving the film an expressionistic aesthetic that pairs perfectly with the film’s ripped-from-real-life narrative. This film, maybe even more so than the prior film, SUMMER INTERLUDE (review), is a cinematic tour de force for Bergman as a filmmaker, featuring his patented use of not only black and white, but his style of framing. He is able to give his films a great sense of three dimensional depth by simply altering his background and where his horizon point is, and it’s truly groundbreaking work. Toss in Bergman’s patented use of lighting and shadow, and their effects on the film’s tone, mood and atmosphere, and you have a typically luscious black and white Bergman masterpiece.

Overall, despite a few musical cues that didn’t do the film any favors, SUMMER is a masterwork on many levels. A haunting ode to a relationship on the outs, SUMMER is a potent relationship drama and with the top tier black and white photography it stands to be one of the biggest underrated gems in his canon. As a Criterion Blu-ray release, it’s bewilderingly fantastic.

The transfer is breathtaking, and there is a welcome introduction to the film from Bergman himself. Beloved Criterion staple and Bergman know-it-all Peter Cowie goes from commentator to interviewer as he discusses the film with star Harriet Andersson, who herself was not only the inspiration for the film but also romantically linked to Bergman for some time. There is also an interview with scholar Eric Schaefer about the film and its distribution as an exploitation film in some markets, itself one of the most interesting stories you’ll hear in some time. A documentary rounds out the release, one that is perfectly capable of standing up against the very best of Bergman’s canon. Oh, and Jean-Luc Godard even shows up, with a review he wrote about the film in 1958. That’s the type of release we are dealing with here.

Grade: A+

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