DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Summer Interlude’

The critical consensus is that Summer Interlude, the tenth feature from Ingmar Bergman, was a breakthrough for the filmmaker: his first film built around a strong, assertive, sure woman and the first shot extensively on location, where the natural world becomes a defining reflection of the lives of his characters.

Maj-Britt Nilsson and Birger Malmsten

This information comes courtesy of film historian and Bergman expert Peter Cowie, who has written extensively on Bergman and contributes the fine essay in the accompanying booklet to the Criterion release. I have much less experience with early Bergman, to be honest. It has been, in fact, the recent Criterion Blu-ray releases of classic Bergman films that has brought back to the director and introduced me to films I had never seen previously. It’s been a rewarding rediscovery of a director that I confess I have respected more than I’ve appreciated, in no small part thanks to the sheer beauty of the Criterion presentations. The cinematography of Gunnar Fischer has long been overshadowed by Bergman’s legendary collaborations with Sven Nykvist and the distinctive winter light of his images, but Criterion’s superbly remastered discs remind us of the beauty of his work, from the sunny, lush warmth of his summer interludes to the gray, foggy cloud of urban life and the cold desolation of fall and winter.

The blush of summer and the death of autumn are defining moods of Summer Interlude. Maj-Britt Nilsson, one of Bergman’s most overlooked actresses, plays Marie, an emotionally distant leading dancer in a Stockholm ballet company. An envelope containing a handwritten diary sends her mind reeling back thirteen years, to sunny days of young love and freedom and the first stirrings of desire on a summer vacation on the archipelago islands near Stockholm. She’s 15 and an aspiring ballerina, staying in vacation manor home of her Uncle Erland (Georg Funkquist), whose flirtations are more unsettlingly lustful than avuncular, and long-suffering Aunt Elisabeth (Renée Björling).

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Classics: The ‘Summer’s of Ingmar Bergman

Summer Interlude (Criterion) and Summer With Monika (Criterion), the tenth and twelfth films (respectively) directed by Ingmar Bergman, make a fine match set showing off the two sides of Bergman developing in his early years as a filmmaker.

Summer Interlude (1951), the story of a summer romance between a sunny, confident young ballet student (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and a shy scholar (Birger Malmsten) on the lush vacation islands of the Stockholm archipelago, is a memory film. The older ballerina, now emotionally cocooned in regret and loss, is sent back to those free and easy days when she  receives a handwritten diary, and she revisits the island, now a cold, foggy corpse of its summer lushness, to come to terms with her past.

Lovingly shot by Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s first great cinematographer collaborator, the film is steeped in metaphor: a philosophical rumination on love and loss staged as a story, with characters more like archetypes in a theatre piece. Summer is the charge of youth in the idealism of eternal vacation and the innocence of young love in all its dimensions.

Summer with Monika (1953), starring Bergman’s first acknowledged muse Harriet Andersson as the impulsive, anxious, immature young Monika, is more about the complications, the rough edges, the unseen complications in a young couple after the bloom of sexual charge gives way to living in the real world.

Here, summer is less a metaphor and more of the literal time of year that allows these working teenagers to flee the city and live on the islands of the archipelago without a care. For Monika, it is an escape from the reality of the city – her family, her job, the dull life of a working class girl – and only the reality of supplies and food and the onset of autumn’s cold weather drives her back from this ambivalent self-made Eden and back to the material world of Stockholm.

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