A couple of years ago when I did my Facebook Fave Fifty list, Smiles of a Summer Night was one of the last cuts … in the end, I had it at #58. This was the highest-ranking Bergman movie on my list … The Seventh Seal, another late elimination, was #66. I seem to think more highly of Smiles than do other people, which isn’t to say it’s underrated, just that I like it even more than the norm. For instance, it’s only #722 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, which means it’s highly regarded, of course, but 722 isn’t 58. The TSPDT list includes 11 Bergman pictures that rank higher than Smiles, headed by Persona at #24. We’re talking about a bunch of great movies, and I’m splitting hairs a bit, here. But it interests me that the Bergman movie I like more than most people is one of his rare comedies.
In some ways, Smiles of a Summer Night reminds me of Renoir’s Rules of the Game, in the way manages to get its characters into a place apart from daily life. There are differences, though … Bergman’s film takes place in the early 20th-century, and by putting the action in the past, he adds a further layer of distance to that supplied by the setting of the weekend party. Renoir’s film takes place just before WWII, the present at the time he made the movie, and he is explicitly directing his social commentary to the French people at that time. The dialogue Bergman gives his characters is arch, often very funny … many of the people are quite witty, while others serve as the butt of the joke. But Renoir, while offering a condemnation of class structure, nonetheless humanizes his characters … they aren’t just conduits for the good dialogue.
So I prefer The Rules of the Game. That’s hardly fair … on my Top 50 list, Rules was #6. But all of this demonstrates that in my personal canon, Smiles of a Summer Night just misses being one of the greatest of the great. Nonetheless, other critics think it misses by a much larger margin.
Enough of what isn’t quite perfection. What does work is pretty much everything. Bergman has always done well with actresses, and he has some of his best here, all doing great work: Eva Dahlbeck, Ulla Jacobsson, Margit Carlqvist, and the irrepressibly sexy Harriet Andersson. Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand leads a strong group of male actors who mostly fall under the spell of their women. The men don’t know what they want … the women know what they want, and they also know what the men want, and once the action moves to the weekend party, the women proceed to get everyone where they belong. It’s all quite romantic, and on the surface, everything settles in for the best as the film ends. But the undertone is decidedly, realistically cynical. As one character says, “I shall remain faithful in my way”, which is good enough in this world, where affairs are expected and tolerated. And love? “We invoke love, call out to it, beg for it, cry for it, try to mimic it. We think we own it and tell lies about it.” Which elicits the reply, “But we don’t have it.” 10/10. I can’t actually recommend them, but A Little Night Music is Sondheim’s musical take on the story (yes, you can blame Bergman in a roundabout way for “Send in the Clowns”), and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is Woody Allen’s reworking. Better to check out something like Bergman’s early Summer with Monika with Harriet Andersson.