SUMMER WITH MONIKA is one of his warmest and most approachable works, stocked with characters who spring from life rather than from the foreheads of myth, psychology or the theater, and more interested in intimacy and spontaneity than in firm dramatic situations -- and yet it somehow all flows within a preconceived circle, ending on the same shot with which its story begins.
Based on a novel by Per Anders Fogelstrom, it stars Lars Ekborg (who reminded me of a more handsome Skelton Knaggs) as Harry Lund, a teenage grunt-worker in a glassware factory, who is one day approached in the commissary by Monika (Andersson) -- younger, ebullient, full of warm familiarity -- who works for a nearby grocer. Right off the bat, she warms up to him and playfully suggests they trash their responsibilities and run away together for the summer. In his loneliness, made worse by his father's physical complaints and the housekeeping of a maiden aunt, the vitality of this fantasy preys on Harry's mind. It is especially aggravated when Monika runs away from home, to get away from an argument with her father, and is given shelter aboard Harry's father's boat. At nearly the first sign of tyranny on the job, he quits and motors Monika away to an isolated archipelago where they spend the long Swedish summer virtually like Adam and Eve, discovering one another and enjoying their private paradise, until certain realities begin to intrude -- like the jealousy of a rival from the city (John Harryson), whom they discover setting up a nearby camp and sabotaging their boat, and also hunger once their provisions run out. Monika conceives during this adventure, which brings still more realities to the fore when they must inevitably return home to a teenage marriage.
When this film was released in the early 1950s, it was considered controversial for addressing matters of teenage sexuality as human sexuality, in a non-judgmental way, and it was also reviled in some quarters for seeming to endorse youthful flights of irresponsibility -- though, like many Bergman films, it is really about the tensions between fantasy and reality, in this case the fantasy and reality of being an adult. It illustrates, as well as any film, that we are all presented with a bill at the end of our party. Like the earlier Swedish export, Arne Mattsson's OUR SUMMER OF HAPPINESS (1951), it was also considered ground-breaking as an erotic film; it included a sustained shot of Andersson in the nude, stepping over her restive boyfriend and dancing away to bathe, and another of her coyly stepping behind a tree to pee. What remains especially tantalizing about this film is its uncomplicated celebration of sexual nature and communion, which Andersson embodies with childlike expressions of joy (did Juliette Lewis study her work or did she come by similar expressions naturally?) and a dusky, honeyed complexion that looks like baby food tastes. But the caramel apple Harry finds in his archipelago Eden becomes the snake he takes back to the city and its responsibility. Leaving their child to the care of Harry's aunt, Monika complains of her hard-working husband's negligence and pursues adoration elsewhere, turning her eyes to the camera -- in what was then a revolutionary, confrontational shot -- to flaunt the absolute vacuum at her core.
Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray of this title will street on May 29. The B&W 1.77:1 (1080p) presentation is fresh and lovely, so enriched with myriad textures that it immerses us in nature without the benefit of color, and makes this story feel not so dissociated from our own time. The mono soundtrack is uncompressed on the BR pressing. The extras include an introduction by Bergman, an exclusive 2012 interview with Andersson (a very youthful 80 in her fashion eyewear, bluejeans and attitude) by Peter Cowie, a 30m documentary including some behind the scenes footage and additional commentary, and a look at Kroger Babb's exploitative English-dubbed version (MONIKA - THE STORY OF A BAD GIRL! - so much for non-judgemental!) with commentary by exploitation historian Karl Schaefer. One wishes this alternate version, with English dialogue written and partly performed by actor Mickey Knox, had also been included; in one of the clips, a lovemaking scene continues for ten or more seconds past the fade-out in the director's cut, to suggest that Harry is pleasuring Monika orally, as she covers her bare breasts with her hands -- which consequently reflects poorly on the integrity of the main feature.
Viewed via Criterion Blu-ray disc.