Taken at face value, overlooking the fact that director Ingmar Bergman would go on to helm better known and more highly acclaimed films, Summer With Monika is a very minor film. That’s not to say this little ode to youthful naïveté is not without striking moments. Produced in 1953, the film has recently been issued on DVD by The Criterion Collection with a number of worthwhile supplements that help expand on its significance to Bergman’s oeuvre. Not so much a character study— the two leads are dealt with in too superficial a manner for that to be true—Summer With Monika can be interpreted more as a kind of lifestyle study, albeit one that is particular to its era.
Harry (Lars Ekborg), a young man in his late teens, works for a glassware distributor, packing dishes and glasses in a stockroom. The stifling atmosphere wears Harry down, with demanding supervisors shouting orders at him constantly. Nearby, barely legal Monika (Harriet Andersson) works a similarly depressing job where she apparently engages in fairly casual hook-ups with her male co-workers. Harry and Monika hit it off one afternoon when they meet at a café during their lunch break. Monika longs to break free from her unpleasant life at home, where her alcoholic father isn’t above smacking her around for talking back. A movie date leads to a fast-blossoming relationship between Harry and Monika.
The young lovers set out to spend the summer together on a beach in the Stockholm archipelago. The idea is to simply run away from it all, abandoning their jobs, families, and all responsibilities. Though not exactly depicted as a sex romp (the film, daring for its time, is extremely chaste by today’s standards), Harry and Monika apparently have a good deal of fun together in between splashing around in the tide pools and cooking mushrooms. Monika winds up pregnant, and the couple has to begin contemplating what life will be like when the summer ends.
Ekborg, who resembles a young Harvey Keitel crossed with Rick Schroder, plays Harry as an earnest, upstanding young man. There isn’t really much to him. He’s a bit of a dullard, if anything. His essential flaw is that he’s too trusting, taking everything Monika says at face value. Andersson is rather captivating in the title role. Monika is not quite a femme fatale, but we can see the potential for her to develop into one in the future. Monika is a callow but mercurial character, and it’s not hard to see why Harry is so smitten with her. The audience is clued in early to Monika’s promiscuity, but Harry is not only totally unaware of her past, he’s too clueless to dig below the surface to determine who she really is. That’s not to say that he’s stupid or that she’s a bad person. They’re just too young to know any better.