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After enjoying the rapturous charmer Summer with Monika it seemed right to immediately check out the other Ingmar Bergman title now being released by Criterion on Blu-ray. Made a couple of years before, Summer Interlude is said to be a milestone film for the Swedish director, a change of tone from late-40s pictures that played as intense, story-driven melodramas. A moody reverie structured with flashbacks to a teenaged romance, Summer Interlude revolves around a female character. Like Summer for Monika it deals with unleashed passions in the brief Swedish season of warmth.
Co-written with Herbert Grevenius, Summer Interlude begins in the theatrical environment of a fancy ballet company. Star ballerina Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) is only in her late twenties but feels old and weary. The younger dancers call her ma'am in respect for her age. She lives with a brash reporter, David (Alf Kjellin of Assault on a Queen) but isn't happy. An anonymous delivery turns out to be a 13 year-old diary written by a young man named Henrik. It disturbs Marie. When rehearsals are cancelled for the day she takes a ferry to an island, and recalls a summer long ago, when as a teenager she met Henrik (Birger Malmsten) and spent several carefree weeks with him. By the end of the brief break, they were lovers planning to marry. Marie also remembers the attentions of her own Uncle Erland (Georg Funkquist), a middle-aged man who propositioned her in front of his wife, and Mrs. Calwagen, Henrik's mean-spirited Aunt. Marie and Henrik had their arguments but were crazy in love for each other. What happened?
Summer Interlude may be a major turning point for Ingmar Bergman but it still seems less advanced than Summer with Monika. Bergman handles the picture's component parts with grace and style but the story still seems driven by plot points rather than its characters. The lovers are vividly drawn, with Maj-Britt Nilsson extremely impressive playing both a 15 year-old free spirit and a more worldly-wise ballet star. She looks like a mix of Claire Bloom and Terry Moore. Opposite her is Birger Malmsten, a handsome teen (actually 30) who seems a substitute Ingmar Bergman figure. Malmsten is insecure, shy, distrustful and quick to become jealous. His only friend is a dog; like Marie his parents are not present and relatives don't watch his activities too closely. The island is a sweethearts' heaven. Marie has her own little cabin away from her house, and if they want more privacy the couple can always lock themselves in her little dance-exercise room. They're playful kids; Henrik's talk about how he's going to make love to Marie gets pretty explicit.
The ballet background is going to elicit comparisons with the Archers' The Red Shoes. Bergman is of course completely at home in any theatrical context. His backstage scenes are frank and naturalistic, with Marie's dancer friend Kaj (Annalisa Ericson) soaking her feet while sitting in a decidedly un-glamorous pose. Other scenes show the elderly stage door keeper trying his best to keep gawkers and nosy reporters out of the theater. Once the ballerinas are on stage, we're treated to some very attractively filmed minutes of Swan Lake.
We also see Bergman engaging in visual experimentation, touching on bits of his future style. Marie and Henrik's young faces swim forward out of the revelatory diary, while Marie is seen more than once in a tight composition with only half of her face on screen, Persona- style. Although inopportune scratches dull its impact, one transition is given an eerie effect. A fade out on a close-up of Marie reveals two pinpoints of bright light near the middle of the frame. When the next scene fades up, these glints are revealed as highlights in the younger Marie's eyes.
Heavy dramatic moments avoid obvious theatrical clichés, most particularly in a scene at a hospital bedside. But when an emotional blow physically drains Marie, her appearance seems augmented with theatrical makeup.
The movie does have other weaknesses. In a conversation scene her ballet company director plays Devil's Advocate to shake her out of a sense of self-pity. The man wears heavy stage makeup as the magician Coppelius. It seems too easy of a way to make it seem like Marie is talking to The Theater itself. Much more awkward is a veritable flood of clues, hints and outright harbingers of doom leading up to a tragic event. Summer Interlude for a moment seems more like Curse of the Undead Swede Teens.
Pet lovers will be shocked by a dialogue moment in one scene, which I can't recount without blowing a big Spoiler Hole through a movie you might want to see unspoiled.
These slight oddities in no way dissipate the emotional impact of Summer Interlude. The movie's overall impression is of a great sensitivity to memories of first loves -- and it even has a hopeful ending. There is no comparison between the -- what can I call it? -- "social honesty" of this show as compared to American movies of the same time. The movie has no overt sensational content yet seems very adult in outlook. What American movie of 1951 could present a young woman living with a man, without some kind of major pejorative criticism. The Production Code wouldn't allow such an arrangement to be depicted in the first place.
One last comment about the talented Maj-Britt Nilsson -- she's the first female star associated with Ingmar Bergman that isn't also casually listed as one of his many lovers. That actually seems something of a relief. Not that all the great talents that worked with the director did anything wrong by making the artistic relationship something deeper --- but it's nice to know that cohabitation wasn't some kind of requirement.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Summer Interlude looks good, but the film elements appear to have been in worse shape than those for some other Bergman pictures (including the nigh-flawless Summer with Monika). Scratches don't last too long but they pop up frequently enough to get our attention, and as I said above, one delicate moment is affected by some light film damage. But no ordinary dirt, etc remains so it's clear that Summer Interlude got the same full attention as every official Criterion release.
The disc does seem short-changed in the extras department. No video added value items and no commentary are present; Peter Cowie's excellent booklet essay will have to suffice. The Blu-ray's price has been adjusted accordingly. The release is also available on standard DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Summer Interlude Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.