Smiles of a Summer Night is an Ingmar Bergman film, but you could be quite familiar with the director and still mistake it for an adaptation of a Shakespearian comedy. The late 1800s setting may tip off the viewer, but there are four pairs of mismatched, adulteress lovers trying desperately to love someone that they are not supposed to. Woody Allen remade it in 1982 as A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, declaring his own observed similarities between Bergman’s work and the Bard’s.
Furthermore, Smiles is itself more theatrical than cinematic, focusing on period-influenced dialogue, taking place almost entirely in doors, and unfolding in a handful of very distinct acts. Indeed, this film was made in 1955, when Bergman was still very involved with the theater (he was a theatrical director his whole life), directing 6 plays in that year alone, but only two years before his cinematic breakthrough (with The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries both in 1957). As such, Smiles is especially interesting in the way that Bergman comments on theater and cinema. There are some elegant tracks and zooms (by Gunnar Fischer, one of Bergman’s key cinematographer), and the lighting brings out small elements of expressionism. There is even a scene in which two of our main characters, Frederik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) and his wife Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), still a virgin after two years, go see a play starring Desiree (Eva Dahlback), Frederik’s former lover. The play is shot from just in front of the stage with a still camera, a stark contrast to the pans and the intrusive camera placement in the other scenes. It’s a clear indication of Bergman growing to fully differentiate his two forms of art. And yet the film never quite becomes its own work of cinema.
Anne quickly learns that Frederik is still in love with Desiree, which is okay with her simply because she secretly loves Frederik’s son Henrik, who loves her back but settles for the servant Petra (Harriet Andersson) because that’s an easier relationship to secure (Petra will find her own lover later). Desiree, meanwhile, is in a relationship with a married army officer, but has a son also named Frederik. Why? The answer is implied but never stated.
The shuffled lovers spend most of the film explaining their reasons for adultery or false love—sometimes to others, but mostly to themselves—in short monologues. Most of these monologues are quite insightful, addressing our natural inclination toward others to fight off loneliness, and addressing gender issues in a way that clearly foreshadow Bergman’s development as a great writer of women. Many of these explanations are funny, and if not, the dialogue that surrounds it is (make no mistake: this film is a comedy, not an existential drama). But the problem is that most of these deep speeches are unprovoked and unexplored, hinting at possible themes to explore but never fully exploring them.
Simply put, there is too much dialogue, or rather, too much reliance on dialogue. At 105 minutes, it feels far longer than it is, as almost every one of those minutes is filled with dialogue, giving the cinematic displays and suave camerawork no room to breathe. Too often these characters are caught up in particulars that do not allow us to understand them anymore than we already do, and not often enough do their particulars interest us. Despite the early promises, the various pairs of lovers are not too different from one another. Desiree at first appears as a representation as a theater, as her profession as an actress is mentioned several times. That she also comes off as being so cunning and ruthless at first may appear to be a point of comparison between the two art forms, but as the lovers reveal themselves and screen time begins to balance out, this thread disappears.
At its best, Smiles is a subtle examination of love and adultery in its different forms, across different generations and professions. These themes are better for being so understated, but they are also distracted by large shifts in tone that make it difficult to pinpoint how to approach the characters and themes. Still, the discarding of those virtues does not come without its own virtues; the farcical nature of the film gives way to more humor, and there’s something to be said for a romantic melodrama done as well as it is done here. Smiles of a Summer Night is in many ways a transition piece, but on its own, there is quite a lot going on in the first half, and even when it slows down a bit too much, it finds a way to keep heavy an serious subject matter as light and feathery as the film’s title. In its own way, it’s beautiful if not cinematic, more fun if less artful than Bergman’s future masterpieces.