1951’s Summer Interlude offers a glimpse of Ingmar Bergman’s later career in embryonic form. Maj-Britt Nilsson plays a sexy, precocious teenager in love, and if that doesn’t sound very Bergman-esque to you, know that she also plays a wary, regretful dancer approaching the functional end of her career at the Stockholm Royal Opera. The story darts forwards and backwards in time as the dancer, Marie, recalls an ill-fated love affair on the Stockholm archipelago while considering the status of her current relationship, a tentative affair with a newspaper hack who doesn’t deserve her.
The story’s richness comes from Bergman’s wistful imagining of an adolescent idyll on rocky beaches under expansive Swedish skies, captured in all their grey majesty by Gunnar Fischer, a bold cinematographer in the classic Scandinavian tradition–think Sjöstrom and Dreyer–and for many years Bergman’s favoured cameraman. But its dark power derives from the tension between the adult woman at the movie’s centre and the girl this woman remembers being. The relative stoniness of Nilsson’s grown-up performance is a crushing counter-blow to her aggressively giggly, pixie-ish gamine. At 32, Bergman already rued the inexorable fade of that kind of happiness.
The story’s setting during rehearsals for a performance of Swan Lake gives Bergman the opportunity to stage some amply lovely sequences of ballerinas en pointe and hopping and twirling in formation, the loveliness of their stagebound artifice contrasting with flashbacks depicting real life well lived. More deeply felt are the scenes of backstage action, Fischer’s camera moving among the performers and settling in while women stare at their own images in dressing mirrors, lamenting the unstoppable progress of time. Marie’s buddy Kaj (Annalisa Ericson) knows the score: “Our faces look 45, our bodies 18,” she declares. “We’re 28, and the younger girls call us ma’am.” So, too, does the aging ballet master, who remarks to her in a private moment, and not unkindly, “I grow older and esteemed, no burden to anyone. But you’ll be given your pension and sent packing, poor girl.”
Bergman was already a fixture on the local theatre scene, working regularly at the Gothenburg Civic Theatre on the other side of Sweden when not making films in Stockholm, and these moments must have had a special meaning for him. He would know better than most the professional fates that awaited women of the stage and screen. And he noted later that he, too, had a brief encounter under the Swedish sun with a girl named Marie, who died of polio. In Bergman’s retelling of this memory, it’s the boy who dies–in a diving accident, the aftermath of which is rendered as painfully as anything in Bergman’s oeuvre–and the girl who’s left to grow old. Presumably, Bergman couldn’t bear to let poor Marie perish a second time. Still, he leaves her in a crisis that’s as painful as that found in any ordinary person’s life.
The long, romantic passages set on that lonely island are notable for their gentle evocation of sexual awakening, as well as their inklings of spiritual unease. Marie first declares that she will live forever, but later voices a crisis of faith. Night sounds–the cries of an owl–fill her with horror. Her lecherous Uncle Erland (Georg Funkqvist) creeps around the edges of her life, and she underestimates the threat he poses to her mortal soul. A later scene set backstage in the middle of the night musters a similarly surpassing spookiness, and there are stirrings of that particular Bergmanesque brand of magic realism: the shrivelled, moustached aunt who haunts the locale, forever approaching death; the chess-playing pastor who serves as a kind of Charon for Marie’s journey out to the islands; or the whimsically costumed elder who warns Marie of the pitfalls of her pursuit of transcendence through performance. There’s even a mention of wild strawberries, a completely incidental but perfectly relevant allusion to another picture about growing older and looking back–albeit one that hadn’t been made yet.
If Summer Interlude makes concise reference to major themes and ideas that would characterize Bergman’s later, more significant work, it also features some of the more transparently contrived situations of his career. I can’t say that Marie’s sudden midnight descent into existential terror surprised me, exactly (knowing what we all know of Bergman), but it did induce a mild case of narrative whiplash. I can’t imagine how this played in ’51, but in a modern context, her professions of spiritual turmoil feel like some of the ripest, most on-the-nose dialogue of Bergman’s output. Were this a later film of his, I’d suspect deliberate self-parody. That being said, it works as a world-building tactic; the overall effect is encompassing.
More problematically, Marie’s back-and-forth with David the journalist (Alf Kjellin) is a wholly uninteresting story thread, although it’s crucial to the film’s idea of a happy ending, in which she opts for that imperfect relationship to save herself from the destructive rigors of her art. His presumably hypothetical threats of physical violence (“Are you looking for a thrashing?”) are a little eyebrow-raising, and when he actually smacked her on the cheek, I scowled. Is this suddenly a Humphrey Bogart flick circa 1941–the worldly cynic shaking sense into the silly girl who has become his casual antagonist? Well, perhaps this is an early indicator of the sexism that some say lurks in Bergman, with his repeated portrayal of women as inscrutable and often irrational. The thing about Bergman is that his visions of the female psyche are so fascinating and so reflective of shared experience, it’s easy to forgive the stereotypes that may also be inherent in them. Likewise, while Summer Interlude may not be the first genuinely great Bergman film, it is well worth embracing, despite its flaws.
Summer Interlude is generally considered a transitional film between Bergman’s humble beginnings and the long stretch during the 1950s where he came into his own as a world-class filmmaker, and Criterion has accorded it exactly that spot in its library. Unlike some older Bergman titles, which were stuffed into a five-film boxed set that kicked off the Eclipse series of DVDs, this one gets its own spine number and a lovely Blu-ray release. Unlike later Bergmans in the Criterion line-up, however, it gets a completely bare-bones disc–the listed “special edition features” are the digital restoration, the uncompressed PCM soundtrack, new English subtitles, and a 20-page booklet with the obligatory essay by Peter Cowie, Criterion’s go-to Bergman scholar since it put The Seventh Seal on LaserDisc with a Cowie audio commentary back in 1990 (spine number 10).
It helps that the 1080p image is as magnificent and film-like as usual, faithfully reproducing the look of a 35mm print. The picture is pillarboxed to an aspect ratio a hair wider than 1.37:1, and a fairly generous overall bit rate of 39.1 Mbps results in a 27.5 GB file that demands, just, a BD-50. According to the liner notes, two different 35mm dupe negatives were scanned at 2K resolution to create this master (the camera original has been lost), though I didn’t detect any glaring changes in the transfer’s look from scene to scene. The greyscale is lovingly rendered, with plenty of detail in the highlights and shadows despite a fair bit of flickering in certain moments, perhaps caused by remnants left behind after what the company says was extensive mold removal. Vertical scratches are sometimes visible on the print, and though they dance along the right-hand edge of the frame for much of the movie’s running time, they’re not especially distracting. Otherwise, this is a gorgeous presentation with entirely credible film-grain characteristics.
The monaural 24-bit/48kHz audio, meanwhile, was sourced from a 35mm optical master and sounds it. Nevertheless, despite the low hiss that characterizes optical soundtracks, the dialogue and effects are quite clear. If I had to lodge a complaint, I might note that the music can be a bit brittle, but that’s par for the course with a film of this vintage. Finally, the new subtitle translation by John Gudelj is a big improvement over what we were stuck with before.