Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
May 3rd, 2011

Better known for darker, more introspective pieces of existential drama, it’s a comedy that truly tossed the name Ingmar Bergman into the limelight.

SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT is the 1955 comedy from the iconic Swedish auteur, who while being best known for films like THE VIRGIN SPRING, THE SEVENTH SEAL, and WILD STRAWBERRIES, proves with this film that there was a much softer core within his isolation-loving exterior. SMILES is a tried and true narrative, which has since spawned such pieces as Woody Allen’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY and Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and follows a group of people and their night of revolving partners.

The film is set in the 19th century, and tells the story of an actress who invites two men to her house party. However, both men have had pasts with the actress, who also asks them to bring along their wives, despite her intentions of stealing one of them from his said wife. Despite this odd number of guests, she proclaims that each person will ultimately have a partner, and from there, the film becomes one of Bergman’s funniest and one of his most odd.

Released in 1955, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT is both one of Bergman’s most outwardly comedic, and also one of his most erotic, a word not often tossed around in the same breath as the auteur’s name.  A dense weaving of multiple relationships, stories, and visual flourishes, the film is easily one of Bergman’s most entertaining.  His deafness with this material is rather shocking, but it’s his ability to add a great level of visual depth that makes this the wonder that it is.  With a few patented Bergman touches, particularly the expansion of the physical frame through things like tracking shots and pans (Bergman used great horizontal moves with his camera, as opposed to vertical axis shifts like someone like David Fincher) and also that breathtaking black and white cinematography, this is a visually striking comedy that has as much awe-inspiring moments as it does laugh-enducing.

Best described as an all-out romp, Bergman takes off his icy cold shell and really lets the narrative just run wild.  There are brief moments of the Bergman cynicism, but this is a relatively breezy watch, that while it may not have the same intellectual depth as something like the religion questioning VIRGIN SPRING does, it more than makes up for it in heart.  Having that in spades, SMILES will make you do just that, from the opening frame until the last.

Penned by Bergman as well, the film’s dialogue is quite well done, oozing this sense of naturalism, while not being afraid to really get going.  Featuring lots of great interchanges and a collection of immensely quotable lines, this a film that oozes a wonderful visual style, and pairs it with genuine wit and heart, even despite those brief moments of angst.

And then there is the cast.  Talk about a top notch cast.

Spearheaded by Ulla Jacobsson, the film’s biggest star has to be one Gunnar Bjornstrand, who would become just as synonymous with the auteur as his muse, Max von Sydow.  Starring in nine Criterion Collection-minted releases from Bergman, Bjornstrand is absolutely fantastic here, Fredrik Egerman.  He plays off actors like Margit Carlqvist, Jarl Kulle and the lead, Jacobsson, so potently and perfectly, that this cast really allows Bergman’s top notch direction and even more skillfully crafted screenplay to really steep on screen.  Toss in all-time great cinematography from Gunnar Fischer, and a great score from Erik Nordgren, and you have a film that may lack in thematic depth, but may be the most watchable and accessible film in the otherwise introspective filmography accumulated by the late Ingmar Bergman.

Another port over from DVD, the Criterion Blu-ray release doesn’t have much in the way of supplements.  Featuring a conversation between Bergman and historian Peter Cowie (who, for all intents and purposes, is the best historian Criterion has in their lineup), as well as Jorn Donner, it’s the introduction from Bergman himself that’s most intriguing.  It’s a wonderful intro to an absolutely wonderful piece of comedic filmmaking.  Toss in a trailer and a booklet featuring a Pauline Kael review, and that’s you list of supplements.

However, the audio and visual upgrade is more than worth the double dip.  The transfer is absolutely wonderful, really honing in on the crisp and contrast heavy cinematography that this film has to offer.  A great audio mix is also within this release, something highly important for such a linguistically dense picture.

Overall, this is a release you really can’t go wrong with. A perfect release for fans of the director, it’s also a perfect introduction for those who aren’t so knowledgeable in Bergman’s filmography.  Easily the director’s most accessible film, this is a top notch Criterion transfer, and one that does the hilarious and also visually striking film total justice.  Despite a few bumps here and there, this is easily one of Criterion’s best re-releases, for one of their most entertaining films. A must-own.

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