Like many non-English language films of the 1950s and 1960s, the main character in Ingmar Bergman’s Summer With Monika is hopelessly obsessed with movies, and, by extension, the Hollywood dream, right up to the point where her life holds no meaning if she is not dressed in fur and parading down a red carpet.
She is Monika (Harriet Andersson), 18, reckless, care-free, victim of domestic abuse. She struts around with a physical pride and does either one of two things to suggest authority over the forces that try to govern her: 1) She smokes, a lot, even when her mother reprimands her for it, and 2) She chews gum vivaciously, as if craving attention. She brings to mind Michel Poiccard, from Godard’s Breathless (1960), a young French man who also strutted about with the confidence of movies and stars, particularly that of Humphrey Bogart.
Early on in the picture Monika meets Harry (Lars Ekborg), who works at a job with vague operations. From what I can see, the company distributes glassware and crockery to various institutes; we see that an old folks home is a major client. Harry is unhappy. He has a habit of oversleeping and wandering to the local pub when he should be at work. He’s a bit of a tardy rebel.
Here, Bergman plunges his two adolescent souls into irretrievable love, or what they think is love, and points to a history between Monika and Harry that is not tacitly explained. Consider their “Meet Cute” at the pub. Monika needs a light for her cigarette and approaches Harry. The way this scene is set up (Harry in the foreground, Monika in the back, facing away from the camera) suggests they do not know each other. But then Monika says she knows Harry, and vice versa. Before she can puff away her cigarette she’s fantasising about going away with him, to a place far from the distress of real life. How can she present such an idea so quickly? Is she deluded or merely optimistic?
Naturally, Harry agrees. He is swept up by her beauty and aggressive attitude. He says they can use his father’s boat and sail to a faraway island, which they do. On this island they do little talking and a lot of exploring, first of the land, then of each other (in a scene that today would be the equivalent of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Monika undresses and runs down to the water naked). Then something happens, something surprising but not wholly unexpected, and the lovebirds are forced to abandon their shared reverie and return to the mainland.
A change befalls the couple. Harry, once the rebel is now the responsible provider; Monika, once the high-spirited sprite is now the grumpy sourpuss. I will not reveal too much about this change, except that it becomes difficult to see Monika as any kind of heroine, and our sympathies instantly embrace Harry, who, through the events of the summer, has learnt that in order to be as care-free as Monika later, he has to grow up and leave his teenage naiveté behind now. Monika doesn’t seem to learn very much at all.
I regret to admit that Summer With Monika is my first foray into the realm of Ingmar Bergman, whose films I have read about and studied for a number of years but never seen. At once I am struck by how confidently he observes his characters, how he allows them to learn and grow without information fed to them. Yes, he was romantically involved with Andersson at the time the movie was made and used it as a stepping stone to launch her career, but he’s sensitive towards Ekborg as well, whose character begins the movie behind a kind of barrier and ends it proudly in front, accepting, not particularly willingly, his newfound responsibilities, and we, as the ever-sympathetic audience, connect instantly.
Their relationship, I think, paves the way for Hollywood’s representation of future misfit duos, among whom I include Bonnie and Clyde, Holly and Kit, and yes, even Emmeline and Richard. Monika fights through the summer wishing to be rich and popular, like the movie stars she sees. If only she knew just how like them she actually is.
Best Moment | Nope.
Worst Moment | The awkward dealings with Lelle (John Harryson), who we think is in love with Monika too.