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Movie Review: The Extinction of First Love in SUMMER WITH MONIKA

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On “Mad Men” last Sunday, this great line popped up during an exchange between Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks’ characters.  They (Don Draper and his ad firm’s office manager, Joan Holloway) are sitting in a bar and constructing a drunken backstory for a nearby Mr. Lonelyhearts; the official (fake) word is that the stranger is unhappy with his wife and is on the prowl for a little extracurricular activity.  Both Don and Joan have ample experience in this scenario (Don as a world-class adulterer; Joan as the world-class “other” woman that married men lust after), and they’re wise enough to not blame the wife.  As Joan remarks, “It isn’t her fault, like she’s not pretty or anything.  She’s just become ordinary to him.”

The tragedy of Ingmar Bergman’s great Summer with Monika lies in its handling of such sudden, terrible ordinariness.  From the beginning of his film, Bergman never idealizes the fierce attraction that unites his leads, teenagers Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (the great Harriet Andersson, already involved in a torrid affair with her director); their daily lives in Stockholm’s slums are packed with humiliations both large and small, and it is painfully evident that Harry and Monika see in one another an escape hatch from the grind.

Still, we – and they – can dream, and the fantasy of young love they cultivate is as appealing to us as it is to them.  Harry, a shy, diffident kid, feels valued in a way he’s never felt before; Monika finds his kindness and restraint a welcome change from the scores of knuckle-dragging thugs who have bedded her in the past.  They each represent the best that their step-above-slum-life neighborhood has, and their beach getaway – the heart of the film – binds the two in a manner that first recalls Adam and Eve.

But Bergman has other plans.  We may look at the discrepancy between the Stockholm squalor and the great outdoors and breathe a sigh of relief (the early city scenes have a graphic quality straight out of Italian neorealism, while the extended archipelago segment recalls the natural harmony of a Kurosawa picture), even as Bergman keeps letting reality seep in.  Monika and Harry spend their days sleeping late, living off the land, and making love; soon, all Monika wants to do is sleep, the food gets boring, and Monika gets pregnant.  One of Monika’s spurned former boyfriends finds the two together and vandalizes Harry’s boat in frustration.  They run out of food entirely, and Monika tries to steal a roast from a local family, an act which leads to her fleeing the police, roast in hand like a wild animal. Monika and Harry end up running into a different set of responsibilities after fleeing the ones at home, and thus endeth the lesson: no matter how hard you try, life never stops being tough.

And then they return to Stockholm, and faced with the realities of gaining employment and caring for a child, they become ordinary to one another.  The shift was inevitable, really; if Paradise could then fail Harry and Monika, how could they alone make up the difference?  Bergman’s handling of the third act has a cold, brutal precision, his sets and mise-en-scène trapping the characters in the frame like the dammed in a film noir.  The world shrinks, and ultimately, Monika spurns Harry, leaving him for a succession of old and new lovers while he tries his best to care for their newborn girl.  The film’s last image shows Harry reminiscing about the enchanted summer as he carries his daughter; he is only nineteen years old, and the good times are long gone.

It would be easy to play this material as melodrama (all the hits are in rotation: teenage pregnancy, looming threat of homelessness, infidelity while the sole breadwinner – Harry – is trying to provide for the family).  Bergman couldn’t be less interested in so crass a subject; he wants to document the thousand small indignities that curdle passion, and he does this by maintaining our sympathy for his protagonists.

Logic says we should hate Monika for abandoning her family, but Bergman keeps her perspective always at the fore: she’s married to a man (boy) she never really loved with a kid she can’t take care of and, most importantly, she’s eighteen years old.  Eighteen-year-old girls should want to have fun and sleep in and see many boys, and expecting a seamless transition to the gravest of duties doesn’t scan – the picture’s signature moment, a thirty-second close-up of Monika glaring directly at the camera before cheating on Harry, condemns us for our judgments against her.

As for Harry, his thoughtlessness results in a child born too soon and a loveless marriage, but Bergman gives us hints that the whole horrible experience forced some necessary growing pains on him; the distracted lad who couldn’t focus on his job in the movie’s first act is now a valued and respected engineer, and he accepts his child even as his aunt offers to take the child off his hands.  Harry is an adult now, for better or worse.

That’s the genius of Summer with Monika.  Bergman is obsessed with the little things, knows they can move mountains (anyone familiar with the overt psychoanalyzing of his later films knows this all too well), and so he gives us a love affair done – and undone – by minutia.  It’s a small revelation, as extraordinary as ordinary can be.

Criterion’s Blu-ray offers a terrific HD experience.  The picture is sharp with some pleasing grain, and the LPCM monaural presents a surprisingly immersive soundscape.  Supplements, as always, excel.  We get a vintage introduction from Bergman; a new interview with Andersson; critic Stig Björkman’s great Images from the Playground documentary; the trailer; and a booklet with essays from Laura Hubner, Jean-Luc Godard, and Bergman himself.  My only issue comes with the piece about Summer with Monika‘s American debut as an exploitation film called Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl! Professor Eric Schaefer (who I studied under during my freshman year at Emerson College) delivers a good overview of early 20th Century exploitation cinema and its titan, producer Kroger Babb, but the piece lacks specificity on the editorial changes made to “exploit” Bergman’s work.

One of Bergman’s earliest triumphs, Summer with Monika remains a career masterpiece for the auteur, a beautiful and wrenching look at love’s mundane death.

Summer with Monika streets on May 29th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.