Summer Interlude (Ingmar Bergman, 1951)
Filmed in Stockholm’s outer archipelago, Summer Interlude [Sommarlek] (1951) is one of Ingmar Bergman’s more overshadowed and elegiac early works that captures an emergent artistic master pushing toward a dark emotional integrity. The film also afforded him the opportunity of crafting a female lead that would later contribute to his reputation of as one of women’s greatest male directors. Perhaps it’s also a coincidence, but the film opens with a naturalistic shot of a hillside and call of a cuckoo, a pairing nearly mimicked by friend and artistic colleague Andrei Tarkovsky in his feature-length debut, Ivan’s Childhood. Both directors enthusiastically express dream imagery in the medium, and while Summer Interlude doesn’t commence with a dream, the film itself houses a detailed memory and approximates the feeling with a visionary, idealistic quality. The style and themes found in Bergman’s later work are notably apparent; even sans acclaimed collaborative cameraman Sven Nykvist, it exudes an empathic beauty of landscape contrasted with claustrophobic interiors in periods of solitude, pensiveness, and longing. Constructed in five acts with two lengthy contemplative flashback sequences, the film tracks twenty-eight-year-old prima ballerina Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson)’s summer vacation from thirteen years ago. A tale of first love unfurls with timid college student Henrik (Birger Malmsten) that both peaked and ceased abruptly. Bergman intriguingly constructs the ensuing scenes through both poetic dialogue and naturalistic splendor instead of commanding with one exclusively. The film successfully finds a balance of verbal and visual vocabulary; author of The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, Frank Gado, writes, “Nor is any of the nineteen-forties films as ‘literary’ in its symbolic weave, or as elegant in its dramatic construction.” Even if the occasional blemish is accented – male characters of ‘Uncle’ Erland (Georg Funkquist) and Marie’s present-day boyfriend David Nyström (Alf Kjellin) feel somewhat neglected and underdeveloped in lieu of the leading romance, and the film’s conclusion, possibly to complement its central tragedy, is sudden and truncated – Summer Interlude remains highly successful in presenting an engaging story of lost innocence. The film is further justified in Bergman’s filmography by its origins as a short story he once wrote about his own brief but torrid teen love affair with a girl who later contracted polio as well as a former male friend.
From the onset, the grace of the ballet and poetry of introspection is immediate. Bergman’s appreciation of the theater is given context in the production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with a sequence during dress rehearsal; prior to the halt in the ballet production due to technical difficulties and Marie’s reflective retreat, she shares the sensation of a recent dream, a prelude to the heart of the film, with fellow dancer Kaj (Annalisa Ericson). “Have you ever had a dream at night and then woke up feeling so soft inside that you just wanted to cry?” Upon opening the pages of a black journal moments later, Marie’s past rushes back and quickly transports her physically to the cabin where she spent a youthful summer at age fifteen. Throughout her recollections, her character is seen expressing mysterious, seemingly foretelling emotions openly. Even though they are articulately spoken, their precise meanings remain elusive to her. In fact, it’s easy to overlook some of Marie’s moody introductory narrations or a moment when she becomes frightened of the deathly portent of owl’s call as opposed to the more tender affection for Henrik or devoted attitude toward her aspiring career. These somber moments instill the film with an unusual depth; before the film facilitates her ultimate realization in present time, they are poignant constructs of the psyche on a therapeutic path to personal affirmation. A Bergman-connoisseur might argue that a certain indescribable chemistry exists between every one of his screenplays (this one co-written with Herbert Grevenius), images, and actors – his unique aesthetic penetrates and transcends the films’ respective decades, as is the case here. The relationship between Marie and Henrik never seems unfamiliar or overwrought; the genuine character study surfaces from their own expressions of compassion, exhilaration, hopeful naiveté, and doubt during the course of their short but spirited romance. In this film, distinctly, a short animated sequence by Rune Andréasson spontaneously appears on a record jacket to assist the two young lovers’ sentimentality and augments Marie’s contemplative expression that they shared “days filled with fun and caresses, (and) nights of waking dreams.”
Though the literal translation of the Swedish ‘Sommarlek’ is ‘Summer Game’ in the English language (sometimes written as a single word), the title attributed to Criterion’s recent release substitutes the latter word with ‘Interlude,’ a title that better “conveys the transitory nature of the affair at the core of the film,” as Swedish film scholar Peter Cowie puts it in his essay, “Love and Death in the Swedish Summer.” This latter title preference also suggests a pensive pause rather than an exclusive emphasis on playfulness, thereby linking the film more closely to personal reflection. In the film’s final acts, the tone grows colder, as the summer of thirteen years prior passes. Marie renounces her faith in God, carries herself in silence, and aided by family friend ‘Uncle’ Erland, attempts to shroud herself from misery by building a figurative protective wall around herself. Of course this final impractical suggestion from Erland proves to be an exploitation of a young woman’s temporary fragility, and Marie’s guilt and tragic sense of loss inevitably resurfaces, because she has suppressed negative emotions to the detriment of her emotional and psychological health. Detachment and regret are transferred onto Marie’s strained relationship with reporter David Nyström, who, along with her ballet master, attempts to rescue her from a forlorn state. Prior to her and David’s reunion near the conclusion, the ballet instructor somewhat cruelly directs her to end self-pity to focus on the limited life of her performance art. As her metaphorical walls have crumbled due to the appearance of Henrik’s black journal from her youth, she is exposed as a bemused escapist. The film adheres closer to optimism and potentiality in its closing act, perhaps with greater urgency and lucidity with regard to Bergman’s later introspective films. Frank Gado reasons Marie’s eventual turn towards the future by writing, “In choosing David... Marie is not just escaping from the ‘artificiality’ of her existence; she also acknowledges her ‘natural’ vulnerability – that mutability which is central to the summer theme.” Often regarded as a modest landmark, Summer Interlude established Ingmar Bergman as a seminal international director of the 1950s; it is an elegant template for his succeeding nostalgic summer films like the once-controversial and influential Summer with Monika (1953), and the ensemble-driven Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). In fact, he has said, “(It) was my first film in which I felt I was functioning independently with a style of my own, making a film all my own with a particular appearance of its own, which no one could ape… It was all my own work.”1 June, 2012 - 23:41 — Grant Phipps