Summer With Monika
n his monumental career spanning nearly six decades, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman has accumulated a catalogue of over sixty films. His work has had a profound effect on the filmmaking community, and many of his films belong arguably amongst the greatest of all time. Given that he’s a filmmaker this prevalent in cinema’s history, it’s difficult to label any of his films as overlooked. Still, with such a prolific body of work, his more pervasive films tend to eclipse his lesser-known endeavors. Such is the case with Summer With Monika—a film by no means shunned by critics upon its release as much as pushed to the periphery while Bergman’s filmography flourished.
It may not be as complex as Persona, nor as precise as The Silence, but Summer With Monika does contain the most spellbinding scene of his long career. It happens near the end of the story, after an idyllic summer between two young lovers, Monika (Harriet Andersson) and Harry (Lars Ekborg), has turned sour and they awake from their idealistic dreams to an existence of poverty and acrimony. Monika sits in a café smoking a cigarette, about to bed another lover. The camera closes in on her face—Bergman’s calling card of extreme close-ups during moments of intense personal anguish. Yet, in an instant uncharacteristic of the director, Monika looks directly at the camera as everything surrounding her fades to black. The shot holds for nearly a minute, preventing our escape as Monika stares us down, challenging us to pass judgment on her. It would be easy to scorn her decision, but Bergman provides us with no pedestal from which to condescend. If we are to reprimand her, we must confront her directly. It’s unnerving and brilliant, and this moment alone is worth consideration for anyone even slightly familiar with the director.
Unlike his later films, Summer With Monika prides itself in its simplistic structure. Looking back on the film 30 years later, Bergman said of it “I have never made a less complicated film than Summer with Monika. We simply went off and shot it, taking great delight in our freedom." This may explain why it feels more like the work of a Neorealist than what we’d expect from Bergman. The concise story, and the lack of weighty theological implications that bloomed as his career matured, allow him to focus more freely on the environment of the film.
Such freedom contrasts jarringly with his later work that found the director increasingly obsessed with controlled environments. Watching a film like The Silence, for instance, one gleans the impression that Bergman positions himself as God in his perfectly orchestrated universe, and that nothing occurs without his deeming it possible. By contrast, Summer with Monika appears almost accidental, like an ornately tuned instrument left unattended by its creator.
The freedom and simplicity complements the story perfectly, which depicts Bergman’s most unabashed examination of young and reckless love. One could see what drew Bergman to this material, as both the young lovers come from tumultuous family lives: Harry’s father withdrawn and sullen after the death of his wife, while Monika’s behaves drunken and abusively. Bergman, himself persecuted so ruthlessly by his Calvinistic father, developed this conflict throughout his career, but in Monika, it feels more universal and less personal—as if calling out to anyone young and in love, yearning to escape their stifling routine. When Monika and Harry finally flee their families and jobs, bound for an isolated island where they believe they will remain unmolested by society—knowing what we know of the director’s knack for revealing the buried feelings of disgust in his characters—we already anticipate the inevitable deterioration of this serenity, but it remains no less shocking to watch it unravel.
On first glance, the films of Bergman’s youth appear devoid of a spiritual agenda, instead tackling questions of social or political relevance. These issues eventually paved the way for a set of theological and existential riddles in his films that suggested the absence of a God in our world. One could argue that Monika lacks that existentialism so renowned in a film like Persona, but turning back for a second look, one can’t help but notice a subtle hint of this emerging. Take, for instance, the many cutaways to the shifting clouds; these images could be read in a literal fashion: as the clouds darken, so does Monika and Harry’s relationship. But the clouds can be read as already suggesting the spiritual emptiness buried deep in the heart of a young and still (somewhat) idealistic Bergman. Throughout the relationship, Bergman cuts back to the clouds or another natural scene, like a tranquil lake, and during these pauses we feel a quiescence that borders on nothingness. They document a nature almost separate from the narrative, as if—despite the personal hardships these two young lovers endure—nature looks on with callous indifference. Although they view their escape into nature as a solvent for the drudgery of mediocrity, nature welcomes them with a sterility that acts as a catalyst upon their corrosion. It depicts a world with no benign spiritual presence to shelter them from the stark realities of life.
Given the depth of this seemingly straightforward melodrama, it’s interesting to look back and take note that upon the film’s release, Bergman got himself into hot water with the Swedish ratings board. One scene of drunken lovemaking on the rocks of the beach was immediately cut from the film. Another, involving Monika bathing in the nude, remained intact. The film’s frank portrayal of premarital intercourse, teen pregnancy, and casual sex didn’t help its reputation; especially as Bergman, trailblazer that he is, tackled such issues as early as 1953. Inevitably, this caused it to be marketed as a sexploitation film in the States. Leave it to American distributors to single out the most visceral aspect of a film, disregarding the complex subtleties that linger just beneath the surface. Even the tortured portrayal of Monika’s descent into hell didn’t prevent this superficial reception in the States, where it was cheaply renamed Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl.
Watching the final twenty minutes of the film, which belong alongside Bergman’s most dismal and crestfallen, I couldn’t comprehend anyone viewing this with such shallowness of spirit. As the lovers are forced to return from their island paradise—Monika now with child and Harry unemployed, both running out of money and food—they find their life in shambles. By the end, Harry is left with nothing but his newborn daughter; Monika has left him; his landlord has evicted him; his dreams exist no longer. And yet, when he looks in the mirror in the final scene of the film, and sees the reflection of himself and his daughter, curiously, he smiles—insinuating that Bergman wasn’t altogether pessimistic. With this ending Bergman discovers the same ameliorating effect Proust sought after in Remembrance of Things Past. No matter that nothing remains of his past life, save for the daughter it produced: you can take everything from a man, leave him cold, destitute, and alone, but you can never strip him of his fondest memories.