It was nothing new for Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman to tackle infidelity, but in 1955 he explored it in a comedy. In fact, Smiles of a Summer Night, being issued by Criterion in a Blu-ray version of its earlier DVD, ranks among the best social comedies on film. It stands easily alongside the work of filmmakers Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges.
The year is 1901. Desirée Armfeldt, an actress once involved with lawyer Fredrik Egerman, is having an affair with Count Malcolm, husband of Charlotte. Egerman has married the much younger Anne, still a virgin, who is intrigued by Egerman's scholarly son, Henrik. When Desirée comes to town for a play, complications arise, not least when the principals assemble at the estate of Desirée's mother, a former courtesan.
The degree to which these people overthink their lives is reflected in the carefree way Petra, Anne's maid, teases Henrik and takes up with Frid, a groom working at the estate. And the antics of the Egermans and the Malcolms are placed in perspective by the elder Armfeldt, a world-weary but worldly wise soul who tells her daughter that she should have seen the way things worked in the old days.
Asked whether she might write her memoirs, the mother replies that she "got this mansion for promising not to write my memoirs." But she has clearly been reading Oscar Wilde, since Bergman invests so much of what she says with a Wildean outrageousness. "If people only knew how unhealthy it is to listen to what people say, they never would," she opines to her daughter, "and then they would feel so much better."
Talk turns occasionally to virtue and vice, but the characters' chief loyalty is to the credo, in the infamously self-centred words of Woody Allen, that "the heart wants what it wants." The worst offender is Count Malcolm, who rubs his wife's nose in the fact that he has a mistress. "I can tolerate my wife's infidelity," he barks, "but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger." Charlotte bears the humiliation, but not without shooting her gun at the mirror on a door seconds after her husband has passed through it.
The actors - Eva Dahlbeck as Desirée, Gunnar Bjornstrand as Fredrik, Harriet Andersson as Petra, on down the list - run expertly through the emotions: the gaiety, the cowardice, the hope, the melancholy. And they savour the epigrams, several of which made it into A Little Night Music, the Stephen Sondheim musical (with book by Hugh Wheeler) based on this film. A sample, again from Desirée's mother: "Solitaire is the only thing in life which demands complete honesty."
Woody Allen himself had a go at the film's spirit, though not its story, in his 1982 movie A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. That movie has its moments, but it sits in the older film's shadow. Bergman pulled off an ineffable triumph, achieved international success, and promptly immersed himself in such darker works as The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.
For the record, the three smiles of a summer night begin, as Frid shares them with Petra, with a smile for young lovers who "open their hearts and bodies." The second is "for the clowns, the fools, the unredeemable." The third is "for the sad, the depressed, the sleepless, the confused, the frightened, the lonely." No prizes for guessing that most of the characters in Smiles of a Summer Night fall into the second and third categories.
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