Tuesday, April 17, 2012

#614: Summer with Monika

(Ingmar Bergman, 1953)

Hmmm... I really didn't like this movie. This is surprising considering a number of things:

1. I'm a sucker for Bergman.
2. I rather enjoyed Summer Interlude, which Criterion is releasing as part of a one/two punch with this film.
3. Summer with Monika is not only considered better than that movie, but is widely heralded as an early triumph for Bergman, who gained international fame with its success.
4. The cover has boobies on it.

And yet, I had a couple of problems with the film. (These problems were unrelated to the boobies - though, again, how sad were people's lives that they had to go to an Ingmar Bergman melodrama to see a little (emphasis on little) sex?) First of all, Monika was a ridiculous character who felt extremely simplistic and veered slightly into sexism. Coquettish and demure to reel in the man, bitter and hateful to ruin his life, Monika comes down on our solemn stand-in with a vicious fist that seems almost premeditated. The clear lesson of the movie: don't be nice and sacrifice everything for your hot girlfriend, because once you marry her and have a baby, she's just going to bitch and moan about how you can't buy her nice things.

(I would like to qualify these complaints, however, by giving credit to Bergman for at least depicting with tragic detail how fucked Monika was with regards to the way men treated her throughout her life. The girl is practically raped at her job, beaten by her father, and basically told she won't amount to much. These conscious inclusions do at least paint a stronger picture of her justifications - or at least motivations - for what she does later in the film. That said, I don't necessarily know that these elements were meant to explain her irrational "womanly" behavior, as they could just as easily have been included to show just how shitty the lives of the two protagonists are before their dalliance in the summer of the title.)

My second huge problem with the movie was the simplicity of the plot. The story is both depressingly  predictable and structurally boring. We all know things aren't going to end well, but I don't like being hit over the head with it, either, and the cliche nature of Bergman's plotting cuts into the emotional impact of his more abstract choices, such as the opening quiet shots of the harbor or Gunnar Fischer beautiful cinematography. Unlike Summer Interlude, which was similarly nostalgic and rather basically structured, the narrative is chronological and the emotional arc preordained. Just look at the cover and think about the fact that this is a Bergman movie; you've probably figured out the whole movie.

This is all kind of surprising for me and rather disappointing, but I can't expect to like every Bergman movie - especially pre-Seventh Seal before he kicked into high gear. Jean-Luc Godard loved Summer with Monika, weirdly comparing its influence and importance in cinema to Birth of a Nation, but Godard was/is crazy, so you should probably just watch the movie and make up your own mind.


  1. Your one of those who watch movies for stories aren't you? Summer with Monika is one of the greatest films I ever saw. Technique and style wise it was incredibly original and effective. The close up shots, the 1st time that boat was shown leaving the island, when he walked in and saw her in bed with another man. Am I right in assuming you prefer The Seventh Seal to this movie and Persona?And Godard has an incredible eye for great cinema ( e.g. The Searchers )

  2. Fair enough, it's nice to hear from someone who loved the film. I wouldn't say I watch movies for the story - note that Last Year at Marienbad is in my top ten on the side there - but I do think a significant part of any narrative film is the storytelling, and if this component falls flat it is justified to criticize it. The movie is obviously technically impressive, but many Bergman movies are, so within the context of his oeuvre I think it's not as special in this regard. I may have gone too far in saying I "really" didn't like this movie, but I was mostly just expressing my disappointment after enjoying Summer Interlude so much and expecting to love this even more.

    As far as Bergman movies are concerned, I do enjoy The Seventh Seal more than this and I loved Persona when I saw it over a decade ago. My favorite Bergman films are probably Wild Strawberries and Winter Light, so take from that what you will.

    Godard had some great taste, certainly, but he also often preferred the role of the provocateur to the role of a critic.

  3. Storytelling, isn't just sequential events that occur to the film's characters, in cinema there is also impressionism and expressionism amongst others. On the latter two and only focussing on the 3 shots I cited above, the incredible effect of Monika's cs shot and when "spoke", "screamed" ( there are no adjectives that can capture this visual art form ) far more than any conventional narrative events could have in place of it ( flashback, montage etc ). The scene with the boat leaving the dock from ls-ms to ls was "visual poetry" two decades before Terrence Malick. Replacing that shot with some event to give more detail or add to the characters story would rob cinema. Not to mention its influence on capturing intimacy on the nouvelle vague ( e.g. Le Bonheur ) a few years up the road.

    On Wild Strawberries : the nightmare scenes were clearly under the umbrella of the type of surrealism in cinema decades before, from Un Chein Andalou to Meshes of the Afternoon. It can be clearly seen even from the fitst nightmare scene where the tall cloaked figure haunting the central character was derivative of that family of surrealists. Mizoguchi blurred the lines between the real world and the fantasy world 4 years before in Ugetsu, so that also wasn't original.Brings us to the question of which was the greater film? The better film experience, more on the side of derivative? Or the film experience with original techniques?

  4. I don't think there is an inherent connection between "innovative" and "great." Certainly "important" movies can be either or both, but movies that use techniques that have already been utilized would never receive a negative mark from me simply because of this fact. I think it's fair to approach film expecting to see something new or exciting from a formal perspective, but for me the ultimate goal of any narrative is to speak to the human condition, and if they use techniques that have already been used in a more effective way than they have been previously, I'm likely to be just as impressed as I would if it was the first time they had been used. I generally respond to films within a social context, even if I can frequently acknowledge their impressive technique.

    I'll also note that this blog is intended to represent my initial reaction to a movie I have just watched, almost always for the first time. These posts are by no means intended to be critical pieces examining their cinematic worth.

  5. I think you missed the bus on what this film is. Let's examine it as an experience closely. Going to the cinema, you see the title Summer With Monkia, so straight away you expect it to happen over a certain period of time, wholly or the main part taking place in the summer. The scene where they both embrace on the boat and talk about their future together, (he saying that he'll go to school and work to support her and the baby and she saying that she'll stay at home and receive fancy clothes etc from him) any adult must expect them not to end up together and a sad ending from here, that augmented their initial expectation with the title "Summer With Monika". Bergman sold out the story from when we view the title and see the early scenes and then almost fully, with this event. We knew what was going to happen, we expected them to be incompatible ( Bergman's intention ). So what's left? What's left is for the director to use visual and atmospheric cinematic technique's to affect the audience's experience, without him giving the audience the story they expected. Scenes from the second half were pure film, those are the scenes that Godard, Allen etc. are in awe of. Though I understand why people may think that this was a story from Bergman, he use a significant portion of the film to set the story out, then fully sell it out, to our expectation.