Meeting the Criterion (Collection): #237 Smiles of a Summer Night

I wanted to start by clarifying last week’s post.  I mentioned that “film should not be viewed as a product, but instead as art and should stand alone in terms of quality and value.”  The problem with this statement is that one cannot put a value on art, or else it ceases to be art and becomes product.  This error has forced me to reconsider my approach in the examination of the films released by the Criterion Collection.  I no longer will seek to determine a particular film being worthy of the collection.  Instead, I will review a film simply on its merits and opportunities, ideas, technical achievements, etc. and let the film speak for itself.

The first I chose was Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), directed by Ingmar Bergman and Spine #237 of the Criterion Collection.  What I watched was two separate films.  The first was a witty and delectably enjoyable examination of the sexes, with dialogue batted about between men and women as if it were a tennis ball volleyed between two players on a court.  The second was a dull and predictably traditional love story, with love-crossed partners set right.  The filmmakers established great possibilities by attacking the traditional roles of married men and women, yet undid everything by upholding the belief that with the right partner, true love could be had and flourish under the institution of marriage.

Initially we are introduced to a slew of men and women, some married and some not, who are completely miserable with their lives.  The first couple is a middle aged lawyer and his young virgin wife of nineteen.  Back from school is the lawyer’s son from a previous marriage who takes a fleeting interest in the house maid while all along desiring his stepmother.  A theater troupe comes to town, and the star actress is the former mistress of the lawyer.  Currently, she is the mistress of a military captain, the husband of our second couple, whose wife is a stay-at-home, jealous gossipmonger.

What’s fun and interesting about these relationships is that everyone’s unhappiness and sexual desires are put bluntly in dialogue.  The hypocrisy of marriage and the appetite to have what one does not is made quite apparent to all involved without conforming to Puritanical correctness.  For example, the lawyer calls out the name of his former mistress while he caresses his wife during an afternoon nap.  Does he stop?  Does he apologize?  No!  He continues!  Comically, he later confesses to the actress that his wife probably didn’t notice.  In this first half, love is never presented as an answer to anyone’s misery, but instead is dismissed as being nothing more than an inconvenience.

Unfortunately, the second half looks to set the chaos right and therefore discard the ridicule of tradition established in the first half.  By the end, each couple is paired off:  the lawyer’s young son rides off with his young stepmother, the stodgy lawyer domesticates the artist-actress, the egotistical officer remains with his stubborn wife.  The bounciness of the dialogue has disappeared and it is replaced with lyrical, romantic fluff.

There is so much to like about Smiles of Summer Night, and admittedly the filmmaking skills are solid throughout.  For example, symbolism is used effectively in the second half with the appearance of a figure of Death emerging from a clock, thus foreshadowing the duel between the lawyer and officer.  Yet, the two world views presented in the two halves of the film clash and leave a good but flawed final result.

Up next: #151 Traffic

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