Carnal, sensuous, and filled with hurt, Monika is one of Ingmar Bergman’s most distinctive female characters. The mysterious and brash center of Summer with Monika (1953), she is played by Harriet Andersson, a Bergman regular and the director’s lover at the time. Here, the actress is at her most vibrant and spontaneous, both unaffected and affecting. The film made her an overnight icon of free, unapologetic sexuality. As part of its Hot and Humid: Summer Films from the Archives series, the Museum of Modern Art reaches into its summer repertory to screen this early Bergman on two occasions during August.
Billed as a sleazy sexploitation flick upon its release in the States, Summer with Monika explores the paradoxes of youthful lust and false idealism. Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika are two working-class teenagers in Stockholm. Harry is soft-spoken and boyish-looking, a veritable target for the game, gum-chewing, no-nonsense Monika. They’re stuck in dead-end lives that they desperately want to escape. As they fall in with each other, the two impulsively escape to an archipelago for the summer. Their life together there is as paradisiacal as any fantasy of youthful revolt can be. She bathes in the nude – one of the more shocking elements of the film when it was released – and they spend wistful nights in each other’s arms; eventually, she becomes pregnant. By the end of the summer, the two venture back to the city with fear and trepidation. Harry, so deeply in love with Monika, gets a job and attempts to care for the child, but we witness his life collapsing. Soon enough, he is left alone with the child. Monika leaves him, angered and unwilling to accept that domesticity is all that life will offer her.
Bergman’s works have been characterized by a literary refinement rooted in dramaturgy. This has often been used as a criticism in some circles, causing public opinion of the director to fall in recent years. Films like Face to Face (1976) and Autumn Sonata (1978) are bound tightly by screenplays that indulge the interior dialogues of all principals involved. Summer with Monika lacks the fine, literary polish of Bergman’s later works. Stylistically, it is simple. There is a basic honesty to this work that some of Bergman’s later films, so dependent upon ornate poeticism, lacked. This, in particular, makes the film worth noting, for it exists as both a precursor of what Bergman would later offer and an anomaly within his oeuvre.
As much a “woman’s director” as George Cukor was, Bergman made a career out of showcasing his female muses – Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Eva Dahlbeck, Ingrid Thulin. Bergman was often, quite fairly, criticized for his treatment of the female as the Other, and one could easily accuse him of this here. If his females are not nubile temptresses, they are neurotic, tangled messes. A symbol of enigmatic and often devilish femininity, Monika, it seems upon cursory glance, is more readily mythologized than penetrated. Yet there is a particular moment during which Monika transcends this. An extended close-up of Andersson as she sits in a bar is revealing. Lights dim around her as she confronts us with her sad, timid gaze. The impetuous girl we grew so familiar with suddenly becomes a soul who is tremendously lonely and terrified of rejection. We realize her affectations are simply a defense mechanism. The free-form, careless naturalism we assigned to her earlier is really a front.
This shot has now become famous, inspiring the likes of Godard and Truffaut. It is not surprising that this film was so popular amongst the cinephilic crowd of the French nouvelle vague. One could readily posture that the film acts as a parable about cinema itself, and the illusory misconceptions the medium is capable of engendering. Monika attempts to “act out” a carbon copy of real life in the idylls of the sea, a place in which time seems to suspend itself. Just as cinema is historically associated with escapism amongst the working class, these characters search for a way out of this milieu through reproducing a kind of fantasy life for themselves.
There are, too, traces of this film in the works of the British New Wave and New Hollywood. The same college-goers who devoured The Graduate and similar tales of post-adolescent idealism gone awry would have reveled in the perfunctory dream lives these two characters lead. Harry is like a poster child for the sixties, disillusioned and burdened with responsibility. Yet Monika is, through and through, a prototype for Mrs. Robinson. Seductive and seemingly defiant, she is saddled with pain she’d rather not confront.