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Smiles of a Summer Night
Svensk Filmindustri, 1956
Starring: Gunnar Bjornstrand, Eva Dahlbeck, Ulla Jacobsson, and Jarl Kulle
Director: Ingmar Bergman

The plot: In turn-of-the-century Sweden, love and lust are in the air. Fredrik (Bjornstrand), a middle-aged lawyer, is married to Anne (Jacobsson), a 19-year-old beauty, though they have not consummated their marriage. Fredrik’s 20-something son, Henrik, is a pious seminarian tormented by his love for his step-mother and his ongoing affair with a servant girl. Also in the mix: Desiree (Dahlbeck), a beautiful actress who previously had a fling with Fredrik and is now having an affair with Carl-Magnus (Kulle), and Carl-Magnus’ wife, a friend of Anne’s. Desiree brings the sordid stew to a boil when she invites everyone to a country estate for Midsummer Night, the shortest night of the year. Love, sex, and Russian roulette ensue.

Why it’s good: Bergman is regarded as a serious, cerebral writer and director, the creator of profound, stylized psychological studies like “The Seventh Seal,” “Persona,” and “Hour of the Wolf,” to name a few. But he conducted comedy like a maestro, as demonstrated in this film, “Fanny & Alexander” and the wonderful “The Devil’s Eye” (which he disliked). Bergman understood women, and he understood how stupidly men can behave with them, and in “Smiles of a Summer Night,” he gives both sexes their swats with equal aplomb. There’s a sustained sexual energy and eroticism that pulses just under the surface of every frame. Bergman’s screenplay doesn’t hit a single false note — the dialogue ranks with the best of Wilde and Shaw. The plot, rather than convoluted, works like a fine Swiss (or Swedish) watch, and the Midsummer Night motif is worthy of, well, Shakespeare. One cannot imagine better performances — Bjornstrand’s wounded, middle-aged pride rings true and touching; Kulle’s Carl-Magnus is the macho, narcissistic, pompous ass we’ve all met; and Jacobsson’s coquettish, childish virgin, who could easily have been a caricature, is complex, sympathetic, and convincing. All of the supporting performances are excellent. Bergman’s direction, obviously, needs no endorsement.

Should I watch it? “Smiles of a Summer Night” is one of the greats. Still, it remains unknown to a large audience, even though it is the best date movie ever made. A love of love, and a love of sex, permeate the film with lusty cheer and kind-hearted indulgence. It is no surprise that this movie provided the source material in 1973 for what is arguably Stephen Sondheim’s greatest musical, “A Little Night Music.” This perfect, polished Broadway diamond took Bergman’s work to an ethereal level. Bergman’s most famous fan, Woody Allen, captured some of the magic (but none of the substance) of this treasure in 1982’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.” The Criterion Collection DVD boasts a smorgasbord of extras.