It’s hard to tell if Smiles of a Summer Night is charming on its own or charming in the context of Bergman’s other movies. I think it’s a little bit of both. The movie is very droll and full of wit and on that score it deserves praise but I think if it were made by somebody else it would not be so fondly remembered today. Placed in a filmography alongside Cries and Whispers (1972), Persona (1966), Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Silence (1963), it becomes an oddity, something like Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) or Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), two movies that have lived longer than their expiration date because of their curious qualities in the oeuvre of their creator. Though, it should be noted that Smiles of a Summer Night is better than both those movies and that Bergman spent a lot of his time in comedies in the first third of his filmmaking life.
But consider that in Bergman’s career, when Smiles of A Summer Night was released all the titles mentioned above were still ahead of him, as was The Seventh Seal (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960) and Fanny and Alexander (1982). In fact, Smiles of a Summer Night is in many ways the movie that made Bergman as a bankable film director, it is his first important movie, so how odd that is told in a screwball manner that he will scarcely return to the rest of his life.
The story is a light Victorian yarn about a lawyer, his wife, his son, his maid, his mistress, her lover and the lover’s wife. Being Swedish, it contains suicide, which actually is one of the more slapstick moments of an otherwise elegant drawing room comedy. Gunnar Björnstrand plays Fredrik Egerman, a middle-age lawyer who has been married to his second wife, Anne (Ulla Jacobsson) for two years but has not deflowered her. He also has a dour son, studying for the priesthood. One of the first jokes focuses on the gap in age between Fredrik and Anne as he comes into a room with Anne and his son we are sure they are brother in sister or even lovers and we soon very much find that isn’t the case. Fredrik goes to the theater and rekindles an affair with an old flame, the actress Desiree (Eva Dalhbeck) who wants to marry him but is currently being seen by Count Malcolm (Jarl Kulle) who is extremely jealous and possessive, but only of his mistresses (“I can tolerate my wife’s infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger.”)
The Egermans are invited to the Malcolm’s summer home, they bring their lusty maid Petra (Bergman regular Harriett Andersson, very sexy) and hijinx and bed-hopping ensue with a ferver that Beaumarchois might have enjoyed. Bergman does an admirable job with the comic material but lacks the Lubitsch touch or the easy charm of Renoir, some of Smiles of A Summer Night feels forced and drags at times. Björnstrand overdoes it a bit and Dalhbeck as the scheming matchmaker and Kulle as the intense and puffed up Count carry the comic load. Also good is Andersson and Björn Bjelfvenstam as the sad sack son and especially Naima Wifstrand as Desiree’s saucy mother. I can understand the interest the material must have held for Bergman, whose films return again and again to infidelity. Here he’s looking at the subject with a sense of fun, without the guilt he usually brings along. The cheaters in Smiles of a Summer Night feel no remorse and in fact don’t try to hard to even hide their unfaithfulness. They are dirty rotten scoundrels.
Bergman is incapable of making an uninteresting movie and there’s enough inherent quality here to make it worth watching but it truly exists as a light side of a very serious director.