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Ingmar Bergman's pre- Wild Strawberries pictures may not be as artistically pure as his later works, but some of them have a life and variety not found in his more mature stories of neurotics failing to make emotional connections. Until the very end, one of his favorites was 1953's Summer With Monika, a movie with a simple approach to what was then daring subject matter. A pair of disaffected teenagers rebels against their unhappy state by running off together, and give the carefree wild life a spin in the brief but intense Swedish summer. The conflict of young love versus the grim world of work and responsibility is a subject rarely touched upon now, and certainly not with this kind of intensity. Interestingly, what in other hands would resolve as a moral warning turns into something quite different. Working with author Per Anders Fogelström, Bergman gives us wonderful character insights but doesn't judge their actions as much as one might think.
Amusingly, American exploitation huckster Kroger Babb imported/appropriated Summer With Monika, cut it down by half an hour and turned it into the sleaze classic Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl. The Criterion collection offers an eye-opening featurette about the exploitation racket and Babb's transformation of a classic into an attraction for the raincoat brigade.
The story is about two Stockholm teens stuck in miserable jobs. Monika (Harriet Andersson) is considered to be loose and available, by the neighborhood boys and also by the truck drivers that harass and molest her at her job in a basement vegetable business. Sick of living in a crowded household, she desperately wants free of her situation. Harry (Lars Ekborg) delivers for a glassware company but is habitually distracted and late for work. With his father in and out of hospitals, Harry is often left on his own and emotionally isolated. The two kids meet, make out at a movie and after a couple of dates are enthusiastic petting partners. Monika finds Harry to be much sweeter than the boys she knows, and Harry is charmed by Monika's frank talk and forwardness. Trouble at home and work causes both kids to opt for a wild escape into romantic bliss. They take Harry's father's tiny boat and head for the Archipelago (?). There they make love, play on beaches, and while away the entire summer. But the calm and warmth doesn't last forever. Monika loses her belongings and eating a diet of wild mushrooms gets tiring. She also becomes pregnant, a situation that she clearly does not think through. The more thoughtful Harry is ready to make a home for them, and wants to get back to the city, find a better job and resume his studies. Refusing to consider such a defeat, Monica doesn't understand why Harry wants to go back at all -- in fact, she hasn't a realistic outlook about anything. Her half-baked solution is to try to steal food from a rural house.
I should think that Summer With Monika works in different ways for different audiences. Moralists, including the Swedish censors of 1953, can see a stern lesson for wild kids that refuse to adjust to adult responsibilities. After abandoning their families and breaking all the rules, Monika and Harry must face the consequences of their rebellion. But dreamers and young lovers can see the other side of the issue. These kids don't see any viable path to a desirable future. Monika in particular measures her tawdry life against that of the glamorous stars in the movies; she just wants things to be better and to be better now. When the kids run away they just want to escape, not to hurt anybody or enrage society. Considering the life that so many of us lead, deferring pleasures and rewards to some unspecified time in the future until age catches us up, Harry and Monika's summer of love doesn't seem like a terrible crime at all. The better-adjusted Harry certainly cherishes the memory of it.
The movie engages all that watch it on a personal level - it's theme is universal. Who can't remember wishing they could chuck the life they have for some unlikely but attractive opportunity? I think I'm personally a moralist when it comes toward individual responsibility - young adventure is wonderful but my thoughts are for the future of the new baby.
Summer With Monika benefits from Ingmar Bergman's perfect direction, and his commitment to a daring story about young people. American movies were still a couple of years away from proposing teen angst as a major cultural power. Bergman relates to his teens more as people and less as a sociological phenomenon. We can tell that Monika is the more experienced, and we can also tell that the outwardly meek Harry is a good fellow with plenty of potential. Bergman shows them at their miserable jobs, and spending their free time together shivering in the cold because they have no place to go. But the summer section of the movie, the 2nd act, is an extended idyll of enchanted isolation, playing in the sun and making love with abandon. The "hot" scenes are tame by today's standards, but only in a technical sense. Actors Ekborg and Andersson seem inspired by their own happiness and physicality. Bergman makes everything in the show -- the boat, the sky, the wind, the beaches and rocks -- play a part in the communication of pure elated lust. If you experienced a wild young romance of some description, prepare to be reminded of how it felt -- the pain of knowing so surely that however good it is, it can't last.
A number of Ingmar Bergman's actresses were also his lovers, and Harriet Andersson is able to project every ounce of hormonal gender-force on the screen. She's also fantastic at playing Monika in the late stages of the relationship, when she's become unhappy once more. Monika whines and complains and blames everything on Harry, perhaps consciously pushing her way toward a separation. And yet she's too immature to be made fully responsible for her actions: this isn't fun ... it's time to find something better.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Summer With Monika (a DVD is also available) is a marvelous restoration job. We remember the beautiful stills from Bergman's B&W pictures totally outclassing the 16mm prints we saw in film school; the rendering of the images here looks like those photographs set in motion. The in-town images are just as charming. One of the characters remarks on how beautiful Stockholm is, and we tend to agree.
Criterion disc producer Kim Hendrickson assembles a nice array of extras. Ingmar Bergman introduces the film in one video segment, and in another Peter Cowie interviews the great Harriet Andersson. A 30-min. docu Images from the Playground includes BTS footage filmed by Ingmar Bergman. More interviews are included as well, along with an original trailer.
The most arresting extra is a piece with Eric Schaefer about Kroger Babb's import chop-job Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl. Artwork generated for the back-alley release is as trashy as that for Babb's nudist camp movies. We hear quite a bit about Babb's earlier moneymaker Mom and Dad before seeing clips from the altered version. English dubbing has Monika say that everything is better in America. Quite a shock is seeing Babb's credit crawl, where none other than actor-dialogue coach-dubbing expert Mickey Knox (Once Upon at Time In The West) takes credit for the English-language script.
What I want to know is whether Summer With Monika is responsible for the "conventional wisdom" that circulated in the 1960s, about supposedly permissive Sweden being a hedonistic place where young people were encouraged to co-habit and play around before marriage, to hopefully find out if they were compatible. At the time the idea was nothing I'd dare even think to discuss at home. My poor parents were like prison wardens: if the convicts speak even a word about busting out, it was usually assumed that escape plans are well underway.
From the energy-strapped perspective of 2012 only one stumble in this nearly perfect movie kept coming to mind. Harry and Monika soon run into dire shortages of everything, including food and clothing, and must live off the land. Their putt-putt motor launch is the one I want to buy. It just keeps going and never seems to need refueling.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Summer With Monika Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.