Ingmar Bergman films had a gentle way with tales of passion


February 09, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun movie Critic

In a year when the Oscar nominations have recognized more foreign artists in more categories than ever before, it's fitting that the Charles has put together a three-month retrospective of the work of Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker who in the '50s made subtitles sexy. Pedro Almodovar is a contemporary master of tragicomedy, and he's in fine form in Volver. But not even Almodovar has achieved the lasting perfection of Bergman's melancholy erotic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night. Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth deftly blends pagan and Christian mythology with the nightmare of mid-20th-century politics. Yet Bergman got there first with the equally miraculous The Seventh Seal.

"One can never protect a single human being from any kind of suffering." That's the keynote line from this weekend's attraction, Smiles of a Summer Night, delivered by the wealthy, over-experienced mother of the heroine, Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck). What's marvelous about it is that it's true, sad and funny, all at the same time. It's reminiscent and worthy of Jean Renoir's great summary statement from The Rules of the Game, "In this world, there is one terrible thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons" - and the whole movie stands up to that comparison. Indeed, it ranks as drama and as poetry with the greatest comedies of stage or screen: It makes 1901 Sweden as magical as the classical Athens of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare wrote "the course of true love never did run smooth"; Bergman trumps that by showing that the course of lust or greedy, proprietary love doesn't run smooth either.

In Bergman films, men never know what's best for them. But Desiree, an actress known for her sure, nuanced command of the heart and its desires, knows she's the woman for Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a lawyer she loved when he was barely finished mourning his first wife. Fredrik has since married a beautiful young lady named Anna (Ulla Jacobsson), but Anna remains a virgin - she has roused such true love in Fredrik, perhaps for the very first time, that he won't consummate their bond until he's sure of her complete desire for him. He censors any thought of Anna's ripe sexuality even in his dreams; when he talks in his sleep, he yearns for Desiree.

Even worse, he can't think of anyone to advise him about Anna except Desiree, so he buys tickets to her latest show and goes to see her after the performance. Fredrik's scenes with Desiree are rife with the unconscious antagonisms that only men and women who haven't resolved their joint feelings can set off in each other. And Bjornstrand and Dahlbeck are supremely gifted and well-matched performers - they click on so many levels they never have to sacrifice chemistry (or biology) to hone their timing. They even look both comical and inevitable together, her hour-glass figure bringing out the stolid pride of a man who holds himself as if he were a grandfather clock. And together they conjure the intensity that brings the film right to the edge of becoming a musical: When Desiree twice breaks into song, Dahlbeck's rue-tinged lyricism proves to be transporting. You see why it inspired Sondheim's A Little Night Music and its famous number, "Send in the Clowns."

Desiree's plan involves bringing Mr. and Mrs. Egerman and Fredrik's grown seminarian son Henrik (Bjorn Bjelvenstam) to her mother's country house - along with an insanely competitive soldier, Count (Jarl Krulle), who has been having his own affair with Desiree, and the Count's mortified wife Charlotte (Margit Carlquist). What ensues has the fullness of emotion that leaves you poised between laughter and tears. All the varieties of love play out before our eyes.

The interior scenes glow with light and rippling repartee. Watching Henrik and Anna recognize their eruption of pure emotion among the jaded banter of their elders reminded me this time of the heroine's climactic demand in Six Degrees of Separation - that she and her friends not turn everything into an anecdote. The exterior scenes, in which the "downstairs" couple of maid Petra (Harriet Andersson) and groom Frid (Ake Fridell) frolic in the hay and comment on the hoity-toity action, have an earthy balminess that never gets laid on too thick. When the interior and exterior worlds meet, the moment is perfect in its mingling of sorrow and ecstasy - a bridal veil floating down into the dirt becomes a token of one couple's romantic triumph and one man's humiliation.

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