*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0
Right before the release of 'Sawdust and Tinsel', which marked the beginning of Ingmar Bergman's long string of profound films with metaphysical themes, he served up 'Summer with Monika', a film more in the tradition of the Italian neo-realists, about a young couple who spend a summer of abandon amongst the islands of the Swedish archipelago, north of Stockholm, before returning to the city and getting married.
The film's principals, Harry and Monika, are introduced when they meet at a bar. One is struck right away by Monika's liking for Harry--he really doesn't have to do anything and immediately scores a date with her at the local cinema. We soon discover that both young people are very needy. Monika comes from the more lower class background, residing in a tenement apartment with her mother and an alcoholic father, along with younger siblings who can't keep quiet. Harry lives in a bigger home but lost his mother when he was eight and hardly speaks with his father who suffers from health problems.
In the film's first act, Harry and Monika are at the point where they both want to run away as they both hate their jobs. Harry is a delivery person for a glass and porcelain factory and is constantly berated by his superiors as he's often late for work and shows little enthusiasm for the job. Monika works for a produce wholesaler and must endure the salacious comments and outright groping by crass co-workers and supervisors. It's understandable how Monika is so immediately attracted to the kindly Harry, as he doesn't treat her as a sex object like many of the men she knows from her side of the tracks.
Perhaps the only unsatisfying aspect of 'Summer with Monika', is the underdeveloped character of Lelle, one of Monika's neighbors who we can presume has either had a prior relationship with Monika or admired her from afar. Out of jealousy he socks Harry in the face out of the blue, after observing him escorting Monika home and saying goodbye. It's an awkward scene because we find out nothing about Lelle before, and wonder simply who this guy is.
The film's second act (where the principals commit themselves to an adventure outside their ordinary lives) occurs after Harry is fired from his job (and Monika quits hers); Harry ends up convincing Monika to take his father's motor boat up to the islands in the archipelago and 'live free' from the constraints of their drab lives back in the city. The cinematography, highlighting the natural wonders of this part of Sweden, is magnificent. The second act machinations include more revelations about Harry's upbringing as well as another awkward scene with Lelle fighting Harry after he attempts to torch their boat (has he been stalking the couple the whole time? Again, he's a character who always seems to be popping up out of the blue without a back story).
One of the great things about Bergman is that you can always count on him for his deeply nuanced female characters. 'Summer with Monika' is basically a brilliant character study about a very young woman who turns out to be quite different than what we're first led to believe. At first, Monika appears quite sympathetic, as she cradles Harry in her arms after he reveals how lonely he was as a child (due to the loss of his mother and distant father).
Even before Monika's sudden transformation, there are clues that she has quite a different temperament than Harry. When Harry is fired, he only brings himself to tip over one glass in the factory, instead of smashing many more glasses as he could have done. When Harry knocks Lelle down during the boating trip, Harry restrains Monika, who could have ended up killing him, by striking him with the oar.
Monika begins to sing a different tune when the intrepid couple find themselves subsisting on mushrooms for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like a savage animal, she breaks into a well-to-do home on one of the islands and steals a pot roast. The husband calls the police but Monika breaks free and returns to the boat, where Harry chastises her for committing an illegal (and hence immoral) act. Monika has no scruples, and believes that the 'ends justify the means'.
The third act, perhaps the strongest of the film, chronicles the dissolution of Harry and Monika's relationship. They end up marrying due to Monika's pregnancy. She turns out to be the wife from hell as she doesn't want to care for her child and would like to resume the life she had when she was single. Meanwhile, Harry takes steps toward maturity by finding a job, with co-workers who treat him with respect.
Things go from bad to worse, when Harry discovers that she's been sleeping with Lelle and also spent the rent money on an expensive suit. When he asks her why she went to bed with Lelle, she cynically claims that she loves him. Harry then slaps Monika who ends up leaving him. Bergman's portrait of Monika is sympathetic but he doesn't excuse her behavior. In effect, she goes back to the very men she was trying to escape from in the first place. The famous close-up of Monika suggests that she's as empty on the inside as that vacant stare we see on the outside.
On the other hand, when we see Harry close-up in the last scene, we're first treated to a montage of the young father's memories of his summer with Monika. His expression changes from pride in his newborn, to a look of sadness, as he realizes that he has a tough road ahead as a single parent. The brilliance of Bergman is that he never sugarcoats reality. Monika's actions are vile but her difficult upbringing is no excuse for her rejecting her responsibilities as a mother. Indeed, Bergman is saying, there are people like Monika in this world! Deal with it!