Summer With Monika is Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 film about summer love, in all of its beauty and impulsiveness, and just as often its selfishness and shallowness. The film stars Harriet Andersson and Lars Ekborg as youthful lovers who escape their oppressive routines in the city for a summer of romantic independence.
A girl (Harriet Andersson) and boy (Lars Ekborg) meet one afternoon in a pub and immediately begin a flirtatious exchange. Before long they are taking in a movie together and beginning a youthful romantic fling. Both are also weighed down by less than ideal situations at work and home, and view their romance in idyllic terms of escape from their drudgery. And so one day they escape; they leave their work behind and set out on a house boat to chase their dreams.
Their dreams begin as vacation, where the warmer summer climate affords the ideal backdrop for the lovers to frolic in nature without many cares. But little by little, the realities of their situation try to pull them back to their normal lives. A jealous lover sabotages their boat. They run out of food. Monika becomes pregnant. At every turn, this fantasy world unravels a bit, and they must decide what is more important: their dream of independence, or the work and sacrifice that will be required to make their dream more sustainable and realistic.
That decision splits the pair, with youthful independence at war with responsibility. Almost in response to their relationship, even the weather begins to turn colder, a sign that summer always has to end. Their initial rebellion against how everyone else, including their families, had succumbed to the boredom of routine eventually gets shaped into the reality of provision and sacrifice. Or at least it does at first.
The film becomes a gently devastating contrast between the spontaneity of a summer fling, of youthful romance, and the commitment that is required for a lasting relationship. The pair continue to grow apart as the necessities of life become greater and greater, and only one of them is prepared to couple their emotions with the work required to sustain it. The story isn’t particularly deep, and neither is it surprising, but it is very effectively told and exquisitely portrayed.
The film has received an obvious cleanup and restoration, as can be seen by comparing scenes from the included trailer and those in the feature itself. However, the picture still shows some issues that may be the result of its lower-budget roots. One issue is that of image flickering, which is only partially stabilized with this restoration. But more noticeable is what looks like compression artifacts that sometimes show during brighter outdoor scenes. There are only a handful of offenders, but they are very obvious. Under more controlled lighting, the picture is quite rich with beautifully realized black and white photography. The film keeps its very heavy grain structure intact, yielding a nicely authentic texture to this early 1950s film. No doubt this is as good as the film has ever looked – or perhaps could – but it’s certainly not one of Criterion’s most trouble-free.
The Swedish LPCM 1.0 audio track delivers a more than adequate monaural experience, with clear dialogue and a very fairly represented ambient sound field. The only downside is that the music score feels underpowered and thin in comparison, and sometimes lacks the stability found in the dialogue. However, given its mono limitations it was never going to be an immersive experience, and all things considered this seems to be a very nicely preserved soundtrack from that time.
The supplemental items for Summer With Monika aren’t necessarily lengthy but they are very well curated. The first is an “Ingmar Bergman Intro” (HD, 4:08), presented as an interview excerpt where he briefly reflects back on the genesis of the film. “Peter Cowie Interviews Harriet Andersson” (HD, 24:35) is a recent interview with the lead actress, where she very candidly discusses the role of Monika, her working as well as personal relationship with Bergman, and her acting career.
“Monika Exploited!” (HD, 12:58) is predominately a look at the exploitation film scene of the 1950s, but also how Summer With Monika was licensed stateside and modified into a shorter exploitation version, playing off the film’s brief nude scenes. “Images From The Playground” (HD, 29:55) is a collection of personal video shot by Bergman on the set of his films, as well as just during personal moments, accompanied by voiceover remembrances from Bergman and some of the actresses he worked with. Also included is the film’s trailer (HD, 4:08).
A generous booklet is also included, containing a critical essay by Laura Hubner, an appreciation by filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, and also a humorous self-interview by Bergman regarding the film. About the only disappointment with the bonus section is the fact that the re-edited, exploitation version of the movie was not included.
Don’t let the fact that this is “lesser Bergman” dissuade you from checking out Summer With Monika. Although it may not carry the philosophical heft of some of his grander pictures, Bergman handles the simple story presented here with a masterful touch, giving it added weight that deepens with each viewing. It doesn’t hurt that the two leads give splendid and ultimately heartbreaking performances. With informative and compelling supplements, this was a very pleasant surprise of a release from Criterion. Very recommended, and perhaps a gentle starting point for those who have yet to explore the great Swedish filmmaker’s work.