Summer Interlude is Bergman’s first great film, and a great entry point into the auteur’s extensive body of work.
When discussing Ingmar Bergman, the enigmatic filmmaker who crafted more than 40 films over his lifetime, two questions inevitably emerge: first, what were his great films? Fellini had La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, Welles had Citizen Kane, Kurosawa had Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, Ford had The Searchers…so on, so forth, ad infinitum. And yet, heralded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, what was Bergman’s magnum opus? His most popular films – Smiles of a Summer Night, Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries – could all make claim for that title, but none seem particularly representative of his oeuvre, which consisted mostly of intensely personal character studies.
The second question, just as debated, is what the most “accessible Bergman” could be; the elusive and difficult nature of many of his films can be intimidating for the uninitiated, and finding a film that both represents what people love about Bergman and also palatable to a more general audience is useful in bringing newcomers into the fold. To that question, I’m going to go out on a limb, buck traditional suggestions, and give my vote to Summer Interlude. It’s a perfect blend of dark character drama and lighthearted love story, which gives the film a balance that keeps it from feeling overwhelming or heavy-handed; it’s also a fascinating story, masterfully executed, and beautifully filmed.
The story concerns the emotionally distant but successful prima ballerina Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson), who one day receives the diary of her first love Henrik (Birger Malmsten), the boy she had spent a summer with 13 years prior at her aunt and uncle’s lake house. The diary brings back a flood of memories, both good and bad, and we’re intrigued as to how such a carefree and whimsical child could have grown up to be such an empty, unhappy adult. Marie decides to revisit the lake she had spent her summer at so many years ago, and as she finally begins to process these memories in the present, we learn the secrets about her relationships in the past.
So often Bergman’s films feel relentlessly disturbing, emotionally exhausting, or oppressive, but Summer Interlude‘s flashback structure works both to keep the viewer engaged, lighten the film’s intensity, and act as a device to explore the psychology behind Marie’s character. Bergman felt that this was his first great film, the first time he felt truly in control over the domain of filmmaking, putting on screen exactly what he had envisioned. It doesn’t hurt that the film feels so alive over 60 years later, and looks stunning to boot.
For a film of this age, especially one without any negative to source from, Summer Interlude looks absolutely phenomenal. The vast majority of the film looks sharp and smooth throughout, with a steady but unobtrusive level of film grain giving the disc a natural and film-like presentation. And as is typical for a Criterion release, the proper aspect ratio is preserved with no DNR to speak of.
The one caveat, and a rather large one, is the dearth of special features included. Aside from an essay by Bergman expert Peter Cowie found in the included booklet, which is practically a given from a Criterion release, the disc contains no special features, which is more than unfortunate given the importance the film had in Bergman’s career.
While not nearly his best film (the jury’s still out on that one), Summer Interlude is a touching and devastating character study that just might be the perfect film for the Bergman novice.
Score: 9.0 out of 10