It's hard to believe this film was made in 1955. But then again only American films of that time seem to have the handcuffs of absolute purity slapped on them, keeping everything on the straight and narrow. Or if not, then it was intended to hit the audience over the head with a morality mallet of where the scary vice of sexual freedom might lead to.
Smiles of a Summer Night follows an ensemble cast through the motions of loving and betraying each other. Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand) is married to young Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), who is about his son's age. There were married shortly after his wife died, and have not yet consummated their marriage. This is partly due to him still dreaming of Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), an actress with whom he had an affair for years (which his wife witnessed), and also due to his current wife not being quite ready for the experience of sex. His son is comically tormented between becoming a part of the clergy and giving into his sinful thoughts, the latter of which their maid continually attempts to influence. Being peers, the maid and wife are also friends despite their differences in life experience. She looks to the maid -- who is treated as part of the family -- for advice; it's understood that she's been around the block a few times.
Fredrik, who is a lawyer, seeks out Desiree after a performance. Sarcasm flies through the air with every word that comes out of Desiree's mouth. They talk endlessly about his marriage and their past and when they return to her place, he finds she has a son by the name of Fredrik. Their vicious fight is interrupted by another suitor of hers, a married Count, who provides a measure of comic relief but would be easy to write out of the script. His whose sole purpose in the film is to poke fun at the stereotypical machismo in men that decrees that a man can sleep with as many women as he wants, but if his wife does he will become viciously jealous.
Like many of writer-director Ingmar Bergman's films, Smiles has a quantity of respectable lingering shots, sometimes drifting between focuses of attention and other times resting at a particularly close range to a character's face. Sometimes lighting is used to add to a comic effect here and there but there is so much inherently humorous interaction between the characters that it really isn't necessary. Though technically a beautiful black and white film, the lead roles are such fun to watch that the camera work can feel as if it's interfering.
Desiree decides that she wants Fredrik for good so the rest of the film revolves around how she will manipulate the situation to get what she wants. It is at this turning point that the film starts to drag a bit and seem to go from one lengthy scene to the next. You pretty much know who is going to end up with whom, but it was a touching moment when Fredrik's wife and son get together. When the stodgy Fredrik succumbs to Desiree, it's not quite as sweet. And where you can see why Fredrik would be attached to the charming Desiree, you have to wonder what she sees in him. It is not having the father to her child as she has raised a rather happy son so far, and away from his father's clutches. You have to accept that it's just another twist on opposites attracting.
Still this film was made in 1955, so though this storyline may be unremarkable today, Bergman was a master to have crafted all of this material together so that it was entertaining. It was delightfully surprising to find Desiree to be a single mother when her son suddenly becomes part the equation. An enjoyable film, mixing comedy with just the right amount of poetic weight, even if it has a few flaws.
DVD extras (courtesy of Criterion) include a restored transfer, video intro by Bergman, and a conversation between Peter Cowie and writer Jorn Donner about the film.
Aka Sommarnattens leende .