Love Like You’ve Never Been Hurt
Published on June 6th, 2012 | by David Fitzgerald0
When walking into an Ingmar Bergman film, one generally expects to be transported to a stark, frozen, naturalistic landscape in which ideas like love and God are presented as little more than fairy tales, forgotten along the bitter road to death. He was, if one is to read something of his temperament through his work, not a happy man. Even in his most formative years, when still writing for and working under the great Swedish director Alf Sjöberg, he tended toward themes of melancholy and despair. These preconceptions went a long way toward producing both the shock and the unexpected joy I felt upon first viewing “Summer Interlude” (lovingly restored here by the good people at the Criterion Collection) an early, and uncommonly sentimental, even hopeful work (by Bergman standards at least). He considered the film a creative milestone, citing it as the first time he was granted true autonomy on a project, and it clearly portends many of the themes he would explore in the future, despite being much lighter fare itself.
Though the bulk of the narrative takes place in wistful flashback, “Summer Interlude” is framed by episodes in its protagonist’s adult life. A professional ballerina, preparing for a production of “Swan Lake,” Marie (the stunning, heart-rending Maj-Britt Nilsson) is watching a bad day quickly devolve into worse. After technical problems shut down her rehearsal, she sits solemnly in a dressing room, pondering a small diary she’s been sent anonymously, but which she recognizes all too well. A friend attempts to comfort her, but only ends up giving voice to Marie’s own long-lost innocence as she complains “our faces look forty-five, our bodies eighteen. We’re twenty-eight and the younger girls call us ma’am.” Marie’s ennui is magnified when she encounters a priest from her youth and notes that “we haven’t met since my confirmation,” pairing her loss of youth with a long-standing loss of faith. In a few brief moments, Bergman establishes his heroine’s demons, and then promptly gets to the business of showing how she acquired them.
With some time on her hands, Marie, on a whim, takes a boat out to the island where she spent her summers as a girl, staying near friends of her mother’s whom she refers to familiarly as “Uncle” Erland and “Aunt” Elisabeth. She is met at the shore by a shrouded figure (bearing a striking resemblance to the depiction of death Bergman would later employ in “The Seventh Seal”), who leads Marie through the woods to the cabin she occupied years earlier. The stage is set for Marie to travel back in her own mind and face the pain that has weighed her down since that time, and through her memories, the film’s real story begins.
Stripped of her performance makeup, Nilsson is thoroughly convincing as a fresh-faced, slightly goofy teenager. Free-spirited but melodramatic, strong-willed but flirtatious, she spends her days swimming in the lake, practicing her craft, learning the curves and contours of her newly developing body, and testing the powers that it brings her over the men in her life. To see her skip about singing to herself the morning after she meets Henrik (Birger Malmsten), her first real suitor as far as the film informs us, is to know what it is to be fifteen and in love. Malmsten, for his part, is every bit as convincing. Playing Henrik as a confused ball of boldness and insecurity—jumping headlong into the water off of high rocks one minute, and speaking soberly of his fear of death the next—he pursues Marie without ever expecting to get anywhere, making their romance that much sweeter when it finally comes to fruition. The all-consuming jealousy that walks hand-in-hand with a fledgling relationship like this rears its head throughout, whether directed at Marie’s busy practice schedule, or more rightly, at her lecherous “Uncle” Erland (played with sinister dispassion by Georg Funkquist, Erland never actively comes between Marie and Henrik, but instead lies in wait, like a viper praying for an opportunity. His loveless relationship with Elisabeth presents a sharp contrast to the young, amorous central couple.)
Marie and Henrik’s first night together is a masterfully crafted sequence that begins with their nervous, excited pillow talk on the floor of her small practice space, and then softly fades to a close-up of their hands stretching, entwining, and exploring each other in the next morning’s sunlight. Bergman’s inimitable visual style is beginning to blossom here, along with his film’s characters, as he employs vivid black-and-white and sharp contrasts between light and shadow throughout, rendering scenes of ballet dancers, young lovers, or just calmly rippling water as crystalline works of art—lithographs brought to luxurious life.
Despite all this glorious summer romanticism, omens of death regularly invade the couple’s paradise. In one scene, Marie encounters the aforementioned priest playing chess with an old woman (possibly the same figure who leads Marie through the forest at the onset of her trip back to the island) who has lived three months past her doctor’s diagnosis. The priest claims that he makes the trip out to the island to play with her out of professional curiosity, stating that he feels as though he’s “rubbing elbows with death himself,” while the woman claims that she’ll “outlive them all” (the chess game further presages ideas Bergman would explore more thoroughly in “The Seventh Seal,” to an almost clairvoyant degree). Later on, Marie and Henrik listen to a record together while watching a fanciful (and very un-Bergman-like) animated sequence, courtesy of Swedish animator Rune Adréasson, come to life before their eyes and play out on the album sleeve. The brief cartoon again prophesies that death is just around the corner, and that their seemingly perfect love will meet a tragic end.
With three days left before they must leave the island, Marie and Henrik’s rapport has grown more practiced and openly sexual. Their innocence, tempered by two months of virtually carefree experience, captures the absolute, mindless rapture of first love, and is cut viciously short when Henrik dives into shallow water and dies before Marie’s eyes. Seizing his much-anticipated opportunity, “Uncle” Erland takes Marie away with promises of helping her “build up a wall” and forget her pain, and suddenly the unhappy, tormented woman at the film’s beginning comes into sharp relief. This is the Bergman we know.
Back in the present, Marie encounters Erland on the island, where he reveals that it was he who sent her Henrik’s diary after having kept it from her for thirteen years. Overcome by emotion at its contents, she proclaims him a monster, saying “I can’t believe I ever let you touch me” before returning home for her performance. But something has changed in her. Having gone back and faced the things she’d left buried for so long, she finds she can’t (or maybe doesn’t want to) hold on to them as tightly anymore. She shares the diary with her current suitor, a charming man whom she’s kept at arm’s length up until now, and in a beautifully defiant final scene, removes her stage makeup to reveal some of the joy and beauty of her youth. She may be twenty-eight, but she’s not ready to be called ma’am by anyone yet.
Though many of Bergman’s later works would deal with similar subject matter in much grimmer terms (loss of youth in “Wild Strawberries,” loss of innocence in “The Virgin Spring,” loss of faith in “The Seventh Seal” and the breathtaking “Trilogy of Faith”) and gain far greater notoriety besides, “Summer Interlude” did indeed, as he suspected at the time, mark a turning point. Though it could be viewed as an overly simplistic, youthful dalliance in the oeuvre of a dour master filmmaker, I prefer to think of it as symbolic of Bergman’s own progress. No one makes a film like “Wild Strawberries” without first experiencing true loss, and in another of the myriad references “Summer Interlude” makes to Bergman’s future work, a scene in which Marie and Henrik lie on the shore eating wild strawberries together seems the most central—the before and after of life’s tragedy captured in a single moment. This is the work of a young director with a grand vision; one who maybe, deep down, knew that in order to honestly present the heaviest and most profound ideas he wanted to with regard to the human experience—in order to craft a doorway into his bleak worldview—had to first explain how he arrived there himself.