- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

“Summer” was something of a charmed word in the early career of Ingmar Bergman, the subject of another retrospective series at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre. This tribute, the first in a multipart reappraisal in what would have been Mr. Bergman’s 90th year (he died last July), revives eight of the 13 movies he directed during the 1950s, commencing with the trio that invokes “Summer” in the titles: “Summer Interlude” of 1951, “Summer With Monika” of 1953 and “Smiles of a Summer Night” of 1955.

All were professional milestones for Mr. Bergman. He regarded “Interlude,” whose extended flashbacks to a youthful summer romance were shot on Smadalaro, an island in the Stockholm archipelago within commuter distance of the city, as his first confident feature. “It’s close to the heart,” he reflected years later. “This was my first film in which I felt I was functioning independently, with a style of my own, with a particular appearance of its own. Suddenly, I knew I was putting the camera on the right spot, getting the right results. Everything added up.”

Typically, summertime was a peak filmmaking season for the Swedish movie industry, since it provided the limited luxury of generous sunlight for exteriors and location work. Mr. Bergman professed a preference for the softer light of June and a dread of the more intense light of July, which seemed to give him claustrophobic willies. “Summer With Monika,” his first international hit, turned into a personal romantic idyll, shared with his leading lady, the 19-year-old Harriet Andersson, a precocious carnal sensation whose fleeting nude scenes gave the movie a seductive cachet even if censored in numerous markets. The original rushes were ruined in the processing lab, so the company got to return to an island locale, Orno, a considerable distance from the city, in order to reshoot every sequence. The restart allowed the off-screen love affair to continue percolating.

“Smiles of a Summer Night” won the grand prize at the Berlin Film Festival and commenced a prestige flurry that confirmed Mr. Bergman as the most distinctive and admired art-house director of the late 1950s, once “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries” had also made the rounds. A period boudoir farce set in the late 19th century, “Summer Night” was a sumptuously theatrical departure from the earlier “Summer” pictures, which were contemporary romantic melodramas about first love haunted by disillusion and loss.

“Interlude,” initially retitled “Illicit Interlude” in American release, and “Monika” are thematic and pictorial companion pieces in several respects, notably a reluctance to envision clear sailing for young love and an atmospheric appreciation of the imagery provided by the Stockholm waterways and the island resorts. For example, “Monika” devotes reciprocal visual tone poems to the look of the city as one departs and then returns by boat.

“Interlude” revolves around Maj-Britt Nilsson, the most nuanced and deeply affecting of the early Bergman actresses, as a memory-haunted ballerina who is prompted to begin brooding about an ill-fated romance 13 years earlier, when she was a playful and radiant 18. She is a decidedly classier specimen of young womanhood than Miss Andersson’s Monika, an impoverished slattern who abandons her baby and is probably headed for the devil, a prospect underlined by a prolonged close-up in which she glares defiantly at the camera. The unspoken thought seems to be, “Take it or leave it, buster.” The consort she leaves behind is a young husband, played by the premature Leonardo DiCaprio look-alike Lars Ekborg. The fadeout suggests that he may have the resolve to shoulder parenthood alone.

Ballerinas loomed large in the Bergman fictional scheme of things in 1949-50. “Thirst,” a pivotal Bergman film made a year before “Interlude” and later released in the U.S. as “Three Strange Loves” (despite dealing with four strange loves), was at its best when preoccupied with Eva Henning as a moody dancer. “Interlude” added a number of sequences that depict ballet rehearsals or performances. Miss Nilsson’s character, Marie, is anticipating a production of “Swan Lake” when old heartaches catch up with her. Mr. Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer seemed to share astute ideas of how to photograph dancers. Maybe they should have attempted a feature-length dance film, in the spirit of Mr. Bergman’s later staging of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

The second of the filmmaker’s five spouses was a dancer, Ellen Lundstrom, who had been recruited to advise on the dance aspects of “Three Strange Loves.” The marriage, which yielded four children, including a set of twins, was over by the time “Interlude” began in the summer of 1950. A third marriage was on the rocks by the time Mr. Bergman became smitten with Harriet Andersson two summers later. It’s not unreasonable to surmise that the Lundstrom alliance contributed to the melancholy undertow in both “Interlude” and “Monika,” contrived to salvage remnants of hope, or at least heroic resignation, from romantic calamities. They remain compelling examples of Ingmar Bergman emerging from his apprentice years, especially “Interlude.” I’ve been fond of it for more than 50 years, and it’s probably a reliable touchstone, the most concentrated example of how “Bergmanesque” cinema began to impose itself, eloquently riddled with reveries and regrets and emotionally secured by the sensibility of an exceptional film actress.

SERIES: “Ingmar Bergman Remembered”

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring.

WHEN: Today through March 4

CONTENT: Revivals of eight Bergman movies made in the 1950s

ADMISSION: $9.75 for the general public; $8.50 for AFI members, seniors (65 and over), military personnel and students with valid IDs.

WEB SITE: www.afi.com/silver

TITLE: “Summer Interlude” (aka “Illicit Interlude”)

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1951, before the advent of the film rating system; adult subject matter, with sexual allusions and undercurrents)

CREDITS: Directed by Ingmar Berman. Screenplay by Mr. Bergman and Herbert Grevenius. In Swedish with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

PLAY DATES: Tomorrow and Tuesday

TITLE: “Summer With Monika” (aka “Monika”)

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1953; adult subject matter, with occasional violence and sexual candor; fleeting nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Screenplay by Mr. Bergman and P.A. Fogelstrom, based on the latter’s novel. In Swedish with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

PLAY DATES: Today through Sunday

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