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Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Summer with Monika

May 11th 2012 03:27

Like a precursor, in miniature, to Ingmar Bergman’s own Scenes from a Marriage (1973), the great Swedish director’s much earlier effort, Summer with Monika (1953), charts the ebbs and flows of a relationship – one struck up between two teens desperate to slip the constraints of their domestic lives but far too psychologically immature to handle the realities of life once the 'honeymoon' period – the vaunted season of the title – comes to a hollow end.

A chance encounter in a bar between 17 year old grocery store worker, Monika Eriksson (Harriet Andersson), and 19 year old glassware delivery boy, Harry (Lars Ekborg), will set them on the path to romance. It's an entanglement that will eventually unravel as the young couple struggles to find their own identities and deal with the unbearably adult expectations of becoming parents.

Neither requires much motivation to bail out of their oppressive lives: Monika is the subject of ridicule at home where neighbours taunt her; at work it’s even worse where she’s relentlessly objectified by her boss who constantly gropes her. For Harry, life is equally dreary; he’s derided by his superiors for a lack of punctuality and work ethic, and lives with a father whose muteness causes him to retreat in a world dominated by his own thoughts.

The pair dream of rebelling against the constraints of their economically depressed statuses, trapped under the thumb of superiors whom they must bow down to just to survive. The freedom of escape – even the contemplation of it – is intoxicating. Together they progress into the realm of a fairy-tale with boundaries limited only by their imaginations. They drift away from Stockholm onto a distant shore on Harry’s father’s boat, setting up base by the water’s edge with little evidence of civilisation around.

Fascinatingly, our long-term perception of Harry hardly wavers: we forgive him his weakness initially and rally to his side later as he refuses to deny domestic obligations; conversely, Monika undergoes a marked change, morphing from angel to harridan. The more submissive Harry is vulnerable to the whirlwind that is Monika from the moment they meet. Drawn in to the web of her infectious enthusiasm for simple joy and the effortless physicality she exerts, he’s a classically doomed protagonist, soon to be mired into the deceits of naivety once the glorious summer of perfection shatters, as it must.

Andersson, who would be crucial to the success of numerous Bergman masterworks to follow, exudes a striking mixture of vulnerability and raw sexual energy. Monika is impetuous, free spirited and oozing raw, undefined sensuality – qualities best summed up in one brilliant close-up in which Gunnar Fischer’s camera edges closer whilst simultaneously eliminating external sources of light, leaving Monika’s direct gaze as if in a spotlight.

Even as Bergman was honing his craft his mastery over the most clichéd dramatic subject matter ensures a freshness of vision, here working alongside co-writer Per Anders Fogelstrom. With two simple, naïve protagonists unable to provide illuminating depth through dialogue, it’s up to Bergman as overseer to provide the articulation that allows us to empathise with one and then the other. Summer with Monika, which grows increasingly dark as it progresses, is a significant work in the director’s canon; one that appears to lack narrative depth when taken at face value, but is solidified by innate cinematic sensibilities.

The final moments are beautifully handled: a bubble of short-term nostalgia pricked by a pained melancholy as a luscious, provocative summer scene - vanquished by a new sense of responsibility for Harry - is finally exorcised.

I've also reviewed these Bergman films:

Shame (1968)
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Brink of Life (1958)
From the Life of the Marionettes (1980)
The Magician (1958)
The Rite (1969)
It Rains On Our Love (1946)


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