Saturday, 6 June 2015

Summer with Monika (Sommaren med Monika) (1953)

Sommeren med Monika

Ingmar Bergman is one of the directors with most titles on the List. The record I believe goes to Hitchcock, but Bergman is not far behind. In fact the main reason Swedish films are well represented on the List is largely due to Bergman, a sad fact that the Danish edition tried to remedy by adding a few titles less known outside of Scandinavia. I am not in a position to say if this exalted position of Ingmar Bergman is deserved because, ta-da, I have actually never watched a complete movie of his. The closest thing is fragments of “Fanny and Alexander” and I remember not liking it, well, I was very young. So, having revealed my absolute ignorance I have now embarked on a journey, which over the next years will take me through a fair sized segment of Ingmar Bergman’s catalogue, and the first title is “Sommaren med Monika”.

Straight off the bat I will admit it was a difficult movie to watch. I got the feeling early on that this was going to end badly and that always dampens my enthusiasm. So, for a while I resigned myself to enjoy the two things this movie really has going for it irrespective of the story: The beautiful pictures from Stockholm harbor and the skärgård beyond it (“skärgården” is the unique Swedish landscape of the coastal archipelago, much recommended for vacation!) and the beautiful actress Harriet Andersson in the title role as Monika. Both are worth enjoying all on their own.

But in retrospect this movie has a lot more going for it. Yes, it is ultimately depressing, but it is also a very fine portrait of young love and the crisis of growing up. “Crisis” is a dramatic term, but that is essentially what it is portrayed as. I think I enjoyed it more afterwards, thinking about the movie, than while I watched it.

We meet two very different characters that happen to be in the very same situation (almost).
Harry (Lars Ekborg) is a sweet boy who has some difficulty finding enthusiasm for his life. His mother died years ago and his father has secluded himself in resignation leaving Harry in a very quiet tomblike middle class home. He got a job as a delivery boy, but his lack of enthusiasm makes him slow and forgetful and the butt of harassment from colleagues and supervisors. Harry is a dreamer and he is clearly looking for a target in his life. 

Monika (Harriet Andersson) is impulsive, opportunistic and almost manic in her eagerness to get out of her lot in life. She lives in a small overcrowded working class apartment with a tired mother and a drunkard of a father and about a million siblings. At her soddy work she has to constantly fend off abuse all the while she can see there is a better life out there. Monika is also endowed with a divine body and a sensuality to knock men off their feet and she is fully aware of her assets. 

Harry is Monika’s ticket out of the slums and Monika may be the purpose Harry has been looking for so no wonder they click right away and very soon they decide to simply run away together. Their escape from reality is a summer spent on deserted islands with beautiful sunny nights and tons of sex. This is the fantasy of any youth and probably the main cause of the popularity of the movie. There are no boundaries and no rules. Civilization is gone what remain is primitive sensory gratification. A good example is when somebody trashes the boat Harry flies into a bloody fist fight with the offender all without explanation. 

Then reality returns. Monika is pregnant (of course, all that humping must have some consequence), they are hungry and especially Monika long for material pleasures. So they return to the city.
Here is where the two characters diverge. Harry found his meaning and has grown up. He is responsible for Monika and the baby and as a consequence strive to take an education and get a job. It is clearly understood that what drives him is this responsibility and his love for his dependents. It is not for his own fun that he sits up at night to study.

Monika however does not grow up. She takes no responsibility, but for her own gratification and see adult life as a prison. To her she is right back where she came from. She is a force of nature and has a primeval drive that cannot be caged in. She spends the rent money on fancy cloths, care shit about the baby and take strangers to her bed. Of course this ends in a split, one taking the adult route, the other refusing to grow up.

Is Monika then the bad girl as the story indicates? That is actually a good question because the movie is a bit schizophrenic on that account. On the face of it the conclusion is conservative in its condemnation of the free spirit against conventional values of responsibility, but that is not the entire story. Despite the split Monika was still the best thing that ever happened to Harry. She was the erotic dream, the catalyst for him become an adult. Whenever he sees the baby he thinks of their summer on the island. Monika herself is a rebellion against all the forces that hold her specifically and women generally down. Why does she have to give up her youth at the age of 18 (well, 19 I suppose after the baby is born), why can she not get all those material pleasures she sees in the windows, why is everybody telling her what to do? In many ways this is a precursor to the youth rebellion era of the late fifties and sixties and the 68 summer of love 15 years early. Monika is a male erotic dream and a feminist activist in the same person and I am left with an ambiguous feeling about her. 

“Sommaren med Monika” was marketed as an erotic film and I think that is unfair to the movie. There is nudity in the film, but it serves a purpose, which only far down the line is to please a male audience. Instead it is part of the youthful freedom Monika and Harry experience on the island, strongly offset to the drab and dull gowns they are forced to wear in town. 

This is a civilization vs. nature film and a film about growing up and on both accounts it is a strong film. If it is in any way representative of the Bergman films waiting down the line then I am in for some rough, but ultimately rewarding experiences.


  1. Your probably right about what's to come from Bergman. That said, I've liked the vast majority of his films that I've seen, and you've got some tremendous films of his to come. That this is lesser Bergman (my opinion) doesn't say much, because I really like a lot of his films. So the good news is that most of the Bergman to come is better than this one, and a lot of it is a lot better than this one.

    Smiles of a Summer Night, Hour of the Wolf, Wild Strawberries, Cries and Whispers, Persona, and especially The Seventh Seal all jump to mind as Bergman films that are much better than this, and I know I'm forgetting some.

    1. Thank Steve, that sounds very promising. A reputation like this does not come out of nowhere, so I am not starting from a negative point of view.

      I actually did like this movies, although mostly after I saw it, so I think the Bergman series is off on a good start.

  2. I feel a lot like you said about Bergman. The stories are hard to watch but they are so thought-provoking that I am always glad I did. He really gets to the heart of things.

    Have you seen this outrageous American trailer for this movie? Distributed as "Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl"

    1. That is just awful. They completely missed the mark with that trailer.
      The people who end up watching it will be disappointed and those who would appreciate it would stay away. Terrible.

  3. Bergman is hit and miss with me. I feel that he's like all directors in that some of this films are good and some are not so good, but he has such a (deserved) reputation from the good ones that critics go easier on his "less good" films.

    Early on (this film being an example) he was a bit looser and hadn't really gotten into the focus of his later films - religion, depression, and death. Pretty much every film after Smiles of a Summer Night has at least one of those three things prevalent in it, and often they have more than one. Those aren't favorite topics for me. If they're done well, then I'll still like the movie, if not done well, then I find them a chore to sit through. I do feel that they could take some of his films off the list to make room for other directors. I'd say that about Hitchcock and some of the other over-represented directors, too, though.

    Summer with Monika was actually just added recently for the 10th edition. They removed a Bergman film to make room for it, but since we all do the entire list anyway the net result is an extra Bergman film. I'd say this is not representative of the large majority of his films you will watch from this list, though.

    1. That more or less fits with the impression I got of him. Swedish movies have a reputation of being grim and serious and my guess is that this is largely due to Bergman. They are the kind of movies you have to be in the right mood for, but when you are they are also rewarding.