Often categorized as an appropriate introduction to Bergman’s vast catalogue of work, that advice depends on what you want as a first impression of one of the worlds finest masters of cinema. It’s shockingly slight work even when not compared to his weighty canon, but there’s many universal Bergman themes on show with his astounding cinematography elevating the mediocre material. Summer With Monika is fairly unchallenging and milder viewing than the likes of Scenes From a Marriage or Persona, but acts as a a definite step back in filmmaking maturity after his creative and commercial breakthrough Summer Interlude.
Monika offers an uncomplicated premise – Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson) are two young working class dreamers that meet, fall in love, run (or sail…) away on a boat for an idyllic summer alone and fall in love some more. In impulsively escaping they do what all teenagers wish they could do when faced with realities of adulthood, but as the title suggests, freedom only lasts for one summer as reality and Bergman’s standard cynicism comes in the form of a pregnancy. Responsibility and consequences confront the young couple as they’re forced to return to town and their defeat to optimal life exposes the differing maturity in the couple.
Artistically well crafted but never fully formed in its pathos, an insightful Bergman commentary is hindered by a cliched and irritatingly straightforward narrative to the screenplay. Harry and Monika’s first interaction on screen results in Monika suggesting they run away together less than 30 seconds into their conversation. Bergman asks a lot of you to buy into their infatuated connection so quickly and easily, but he justifies his request. The captivating performances from Andersson and Ekborg combine with Bergman’s effortless ease in magnifying their radiant and at times erotic beauty in his typically ravishing close-ups and breathtakingly captured surroundings.
Although succumbing to the sympathy of their escape, once they leave the Swedish archipelago and we enter the final act Bergman moves to magnifying his leading lady’s flaws and transforms her into a truly petulant, infantile and callous individual – rendering Monika as a character undeserving of the adoration Bergman bestows on her. It feels like a little bit of Monika’s petulance inhabits him as he must make a movie to glorify his beautiful muse to the world, yet he inevitably makes her so unappealing as a person that no one else could possibly fall for her as he has. Maybe that was his intention all along…