March 12, 2007

Summer with Monica

Summer with Monica is one of Ingmar Bergman's earliest works. It is a wonderful film though, exhibiting the talents of a woman who was to become one of Bergman's main actresses, Harriet Andersson. The film is about the way that kids become adults and in particular about the peculiar stage in between the transition that we call the reign of the teenager. Bergman's story is a perceptive tale strung along a familiar theme- boy meets girl, girl gets pregnant, there is a shotgun marriage and less familiarly it all ends with the woman, Monica, leaving. But of course this being Bergman he does more with the story than just that- his camera work is astonishing and the actors work well- in particular Andersson who really performs brilliantly and captures everything that needs to be said about Monica.

This is really Monica's picture- she is the titular character and dominates the whole landscape from the first moment when she tempts Harry, her boyfriend into a teenage kiss after seeing a movie to the last shot, Monica dominates. Andersson is well cast physically in the role- she has the right degree of physical attractiveness for the role. More than that though, she manages to capture the immaturity of Monica, I don't think I've seen many more effective performances of how a teenage girl can conventionally kiss because its what is meant. She enjoys her sensuality, her body and dances like a woman convinced of her own sexuality to jazz music, she goes out and gets boyfriends whilst her husband is out at work.

What is interesting about Monica though, and what I think needs to be brought out because in a sense it is what I think Bergman was trying to get at is the way that the marriage effects her. Its not just that she is far too young to enjoy being a mother- far too interested in dancing and having fun than in nappies and kids. Its also that her image of what traditional marriage is is not what the reality of traditional marriage in working class Sweden is. Early on in the film, Monica speaks a lot about marriage- but the marriage she imagines is a Hollywood style one where her husband works all day and then she and him go to glamorous parties and she wears gorgeous gowns in the evening. She doesn't imagine life on a low rent, with a screaming child and a husband who for no fault of his own can't provide for her desires. The world she imagined traditional marriage to be isn't the world that it turns out to be- and she seems not to wish to take any other path to live her life within.

Its difficult to compete with Andersson on this form but Lars Ekborg tries. The problem is that his character is very passive. In many ways he is the casualty of the film- left alone with a child at the end. Monica pushes him into sensuality, into sexuality, into escaping with her to an island for the summer where the conception of the child takes place (the summer of the title of the film). Ekborg is much more self contained than Andersson in his portrayel- only erupting into violence near the end of the film when he realizes that his dream of adolescent life has become a nightmare- he has impregnated and now is married to the town slut. In many ways the film is Monica's episode in Harry's life- so Harry is an everyman and Monica is the focus. The end of the film brings Ekborg more into focus- his fury and his despair come out more and more and Monica treats him abominably and he knows it and realizes it. A fantastic montage towards the end of the moments of joy they spent together comes to his mind as he grasps her letter telling him that she is about to leave him.

Having just seen this film for the first time, the images that keep coming back though aren't to do with Ekborg and his obvious despair and distress but to do with Monica. Part of the way that the relationship doesn't function is that there is a disjunction between her fantasy of the way that adulthood will come out and the reality of what that adulthood looks like. Part of the reason for that is obviously the fact that her part in that adulthood is supposed to be the inactive one- there are three particularly poignant moments in the film- one where Harry tells Monica he will study for the future when they are married. Later in the film Monica tells him that she has nothing to do but he can study, he has the camaraderie of going out with his workmates. She has to spend all day with the baby- her only route of escape is to desert him and for that she receives in the end a measure of condemnation, he receives the virtuous part but his life is ruined. Inaction in Monica's case looks attractive when the inactive life you imagine is rich and filled with interest- the reality of doing nothing but care for your kids makes this bright teenager desert her young husband. As she plaintively says 'when you are young you are supposed to have fun'.

A last grim insight that the film offers is that these characters are doomed to repeat themselves. Harry leaves his home with Monica because his work is oppressive and he spends his time at home in a home bereft of affection- his mother died when he was eight and his father is always ill. Harry at the end of the film is left holding a child- like his father he is a single parent and this child won't even have the eight years of its mother that he had. Monica too fled her home to escape both the sexual abuse she suffers in her workplace and the dirty cluttered house of her parents, filled with bottles, babies and a shortage of space and cash. She ends up though living with an unwanted baby- she ends up having learnt very little about what is ahead of her- going back to live amongst those that will abuse her. We know that Harry is a good man and she admits that he is the best she has ever known, but still she returns to her mire. Furthermore there is no reason to think she has any more insight now about the fact that whilst young love and sex are tempting- they produce results in the form of babies with which she is unable to cope. The shot that symbolizes her life comes right at the end of the film, when the camera focuses in upon her smoking a cigarette given to her by a lover in a club. The directors of the French New Wave took her independence to heart when making their own films, but I think there is a kind of decay in her look of cool, self righteous sin- she looks cool but she has lost her hope of anything. She has no myths- only sordid men trying to reach up her skirt.

On the surface this is a very upbeat film by Bergman's standards about the escape of two young lovers for a period from life and then their return. But actually it highlights some of the real difficulties that people have with growing up, with avoiding their parents' fates and furthermore with escaping the myths that definitely in Monica's case don't fulfill themselves.


Anonymous said...

Very nice analysis of the film. Good work! The only other point that I'd like to add is that, in the end of the film, I felt that Bergman might be trying to indicate that Harry too might be doomed to repeat the same mistake of falling in love with another girl like Monika because of her beauty. Maybe she'll turn out to be good, maybe she won't, but it's very likely that he'll try it happens so often in real life.

Gracchi said...

Anon I think that is quite possible!