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Summer With Monika (Blu-ray Review)

11 Jun, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Harriet Andersson, Lars Ekborg.

Though time has been kind to a lot of early works from Ingmar Bergman, here’s a case — judging from a brief interview excerpt of the writer/director included as part of this dependably sterling Criterion release — where the filmmaker concurred that what materialized from a secluded island shoot still pleased him more than 40 years later. Even in its own day, however, 1953’s Monika upped Bergman’s standing, if perhaps not to the degree of subsequent triumphs that kept shooting him to new 1950s plateaus. The very next picture that followed — Sawdust and Tinsel — was a huge breakthrough. Smiles of a Summer Night was even bigger, and The Seventh Seal was the biggest of all during this formative period.

A key player in Sawdust and Smiles was Monika star Harriet Andersson — who, though young and green, had enough allure and talent to get Bergman to leave his wife and embark on an affair during shooting. Andersson offers a dead-on portrayal in Monika of what some would call a “free spirit” — though both her character and that of her equally young lover (Lars Ekborg as Harry) are mired in Stockholm working-class living conditions that anyone would be crazed to flee. Monika’s home life is probably a little worse compared to his, but he also has to deal with superiors at work who don’t have much appreciation of what he brings to the business, which isn’t much.

Until matters get pretty heavy in what amounts to the movie’s third act, there isn’t a whole lot of “event” here, at least compared to conventional screen stories. But actually, lives have been irrevocably altered, and Harry will likely never be as callow as he is in the early scenes. This is also a very telling portrayal of love gone wrong. During their summer interlude (and by the way, Bergman’s 1951 Summer Interlude has just rated its own Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release), the two go from being so infatuated that they’re happy to sleep on a cold-weather boat without much shelter — to a point where stealing someone’s pot roast for culinary survival becomes a substantive plot point. Through it all, the great Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography is black-and-white the way cineastes longed to see it in ‘60s’ and ‘70s’ revival houses, back when young people with gray matter preferred learning about other cultures on film to playing video games. Fischer died a year ago this week: age 100.

Because of Monika’s colorful U.S. distribution history, the film lends itself to Criterion treatment for even more than the usual reasons. Later in the ‘50s, Kroger Babb — out of Ohio and among high among the royalty of old-school ballyhoo — obtained rights to the picture, though after a while, even this tenuous ownership was disputed by its Swedish handlers and their New York lawyers. Babb parlayed the brief profile/backside nudity of the film’s female lead into a severely truncated exploitation version called Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl! — which certainly must have been an alternative to the ways that Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds were presenting themselves. Film historian Eric Schaefer walks us through this sub-culture of distribution and, specifically, the techniques Babb employed to market some of the day’s least homogenized material.

Other extras include a long informative essay by film scholar Laura Hubner; a Bergman publicity/promotional piece from ’53; a 1958 review by Jean-Luc Godard; and a delightful 24-minute interview of Andersson by the formidable Peter Cowie — conducted earlier this year and showing the actress to be (at 80) sharp and still remarkably attractive. And completely unexpected is the 30-minute inclusion of Bergman on-the-set home movies of his acting stock company over many productions — all punched up by audio interviews of the filmmaker and his famed pair of Andersson’s (Harriet and Bibi). The contrast between off-camera jocularity and the grim subject matter of some of the films being shot is something to see: there’s nothing like a chortling crew between takes on Through a Glass Darkly. I’m not sure what is the bigger revelation here: that Bergman’s frequently cast old-hand Gunnar Bjornstrand had a wild sense of humor or that Bergman himself liked to imitate Groucho Marx and his walk. (OK, we’ll concede the second.)

About the Author: Mike Clark

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