Among Ingmar Bergman’s countless wives and romances, there is one that gave birth to the most tender and powerful moving picture of his work. Starring a wild girl wearing woollen knickers, Summer with Monika (Sommaren Med Monika, 1953) is a double-layered love tale between two young workers from Stockholm and, at the same time on the other side of the camera, between the film-maker and the leading actress themselves.
The creation of a masterpiece, born from an artist’s fascination with his female muse is nothing new at the time Bergman made Summer with Monika. The history of art is indeed full of painters, writers, musicians and yet film-makers who found inspiration hiding in the nape of a beautiful woman. While the greatest artists are able to transmit their passionate feelings and make their audience fall in love with a woman through their way of picturing, describing or simply evoking her; the greatest lovers among them are those who, in addition, are able to step back as ‘auteurs’ and let the object of their romantic reveries become an actual subject, free to act, free to think and most importantly in films: free to look.
Making us fall in love with the heroine, just as much as he is falling in love with the actress, while letting her be the active leader of her own story, instead of subordinating her to the role of the artist’s passive creature: this is what Bergman achieves with Monika.
In Summer with Monika, Ingmar Bergman introduces us to the working-class neighbourhoods of Stockholm – an environment he is quite unfamiliar working with – before taking us over the sea to the idyllic beaches of Ornö, a peaceful island in the South of the Stockholm archipelago. There, the limitless horizon and wildness of the landscape mirror the heroine’s complete freedom and vitality. As she gambols around, drinks schnapps straight from the bottle, smokes cigarettes, smuggles food, swears and even initiates sex with her lover, Harry (Lars Ekborg), her independence and agency are total. She is as free as a bird. As free as a man.
Even the baby she gives birth to when the couple’s “summer interlude” comes to an end and they move back to Stockholm does not affect her unconditional need for independence in the slightest way. In their small, dark apartment depicted as a cage, Monika’s newborn child is crying, while she, like the salmon snatched out of the river, is slowly suffocating. She starts to go out, sees other men. She eventually breaks free, preferring to leave her child and husband behind, rather than her freedom.
Of course, so much energy could not go unnoticed at the time the film was released. Harriett Andersson’s uninhibited performance, regarded as scandalously erotic, aroused the boldest spectators’ interest while shocking the most puritanical ones. Several scenes were censored around the world. In the US, the film was only shown in exploitation and drive-in cinemas, with a quite explicit title: Monika, The Story of a Bad Girl. In France, critics did not seem to focus on much else than its sensual aspects.
It is only a few years later that the film was ‘rediscovered’ by the young critics of the Cahiers du Cinéma, namely Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. The future representatives of the French ‘New Wave’ immediately fell in love with the film and started writing euphoric reviews about it. In July 1958, a portrait of Harriett Andersson in Monika, with chin up, closed eyes and half-naked chest is printed on the front page of the yellow magazine. The same photo also appears in Truffaut’s first feature film, The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959). In the scene in question, Monika’s portrait is stolen by the 12-year-old rebellious hero, Antoine Doinel – an emblematic act which makes her become a true icon, not only of beauty and eroticism but also of emancipation and defiance. At the time, Truffaut was known as the author of one of the most polemical articles ever written in the history of film criticism: “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” (“Une certaine tendance du cinéma français”, Cahiers du Cinéma n°31, 1954). Coming from such an iconoclast, the reference to Monika is therefore quite symbolic.
Jean-Luc Godard too pays his tribute to the Swedish film, with his articles – such as the memorable ‘Bergmanorama’ where he celebrates Bergman as “the most original auteur of modern European cinema” (Cahiers du Cinéma n°85, 1958) – as well as with his films, by trying to reproduce “these extraordinary minutes where Harriett Andersson stares through the camera” (Arts n°680, 1958). Each time he makes Anna Karina – his personal “Harriett” – break the cinematic rule of transparency by looking right into the lens – in Vivre sa Vie (1962) or Pierrot le fou (1965) for instance – it can be seen as a reference to Monika. Nevertheless, although Godard found a lot of inspiration in Bergman’s work, there is one thing he never seemed to understand, or at least has never been able to imitate: the art of sharing love towards someone else than himself. Like Bergman, Godard had his muses, whom he filmed, loved, married and divorced. Like Bergman with Andersson, his first film with Anna Karina, The Little Soldier (Le Petit Soldat, 1960), marks the beginning of a love story, as well as an important series of masterpieces. Unlike Bergman however, Godard’s depiction of his beloved woman is objectifying because of its one-sided masculine perspective, imprisoning because of its way of framing her, and narcissistic because of the auteur’s self-representation through the hero. In other words, Godard’s camera throws the actress into a cinematic cage where all she is allowed to do is to look pretty, while Bergman, on the contrary, gives her the key to escape.
In Summer with Monika, Andersson leads and Bergman follows, making tender attempts to contain her restless need for space, such as dressing her in a skirt too hard to close on the waist and an old woollen sweater, which seems to have shrunk in the wash. Luckily, the heroine is independent enough to get rid of her tight clothes by simply taking them off – in a highly controversial scene, which might have participated in creating a myth about Sweden as a sexually open country. In this nude scene, Monika’s naked body appears objectified by the double male gaze of both Harry and Bergman. Punctuated with close-ups on Harry’s face, emphasizing the fact that he is watching her, this scene does not avoid subordinating Monika to the role of erotic object. The objectification is even more apparent, for it marks a rupture in the focalization established with Monika; while the opening of the film is dominated by Harry’s point of view, the focus switches to Monika as soon as the couple reaches the island, making her the main source of subjectivity and identification. Bergman’s effort to picture women’s subjectivity – not only in Monika but also in his entire work – is one of the aspects that have interested feminist film critics. Although feminists have in general been quite positive about Bergman’s way of portraying women, his tendency to eroticizing their bodies is a ‘vice’ regularly pointed at and condemned.
It is true that Monika’s sensuality is emphasised all throughout the film. However, it is never in an exaggerated, artificial way. Most importantly, her acts are shown as the result of her own free will. Unlike Anna Karina in The Little Soldier, who shakes her hair, or looks in a certain direction only when the male hero asks her to do so, or is embarrassed when he wants to see her naked in the shower, Harriett Andersson lets the camera objectify her as long as she consents. When she needs ‘privacy’, she goes away. In the scene where she wakes up on the island, how else can we explain the fact that she goes hiding behind a tree to pee, even though she is completely alone in the middle of a wild landscape? From whom is she hiding, if not from the camera?
The fact is, she knows. She knows she is being filmed, she knows it is fiction, she knows it is construction. The moment that makes it all clear is when she stares right into the camera after a man lights her a cigarette in a nightclub. Monika’s long and penetrating look at the camera is one of these shots, together with Eisenstein’s baby carriage in Battleship Potemkin or Hitchcock’s shower in Psycho, which made history without losing one second of their intensity even after so many years. Countless are the lines that have been written, the interpretations that have been made about that look. Godard says that by looking at us, Monika gives evidence of how much she despises herself, for “involuntarily choosing hell instead of heaven”. Suggesting she is a passive poor thing, who takes only involuntary decisions, this comment is another example of Godard’s narrow-mindedness regarding women’s agency. He concludes by saying it is “the saddest shot in film history”.
I say it is the strongest. An inexplicable mixture of defiance, empowerment and melancholia, which deeply touches my heart. As her eyes catch mine, I do not know what is fiction or what is ‘real’ anymore. She looks at me, I look at her, the lights fade out, time stops. By the time I understand this is probably what “love at first sight” means, she is already gone, leaving Harry alone with the baby in his arms. In the last sequence, as Harry looks in the same mirror Monika looked at the beginning of the film, the circle is completed. Of this unreachable creature, only the memory remains, like a dream, like a ray of light reflected in the mirror. The Bad Girl might have chosen hell, I am sure one day we shall meet in heaven.
BERGALA, Alain, Monika de Ingmar Bergman, Liège, Yellow Now, 2005.
BLACKWELL, Marilyn Johns, Gender and Representation in the Films of Ingmar Bergman, Columbia, Camden House, 1997.
GODARD, Jean-Luc, “Bergmanorama”, Cahiers du Cinéma, n°85, January 1958, pp. 1-5.
GODARD, Jean-Luc, “Monika”, Arts, n°680, July 1958.
HÜBNER, Laura, “Her defiant stare: dreams of another world in Summer with Monika”, Studies in European Cinema, 2/2, 2005, pp. 103-113.
HUMPHREY, Daniel, “Bad girls and illicit interludes: Ingmar Bergman outside the box”, Post Script, 34.2-3.
LUND, Arne, “The Story of a Bad Girl! Summer with Monika, Sexploitation and the Selling of Erotic Bergman in America”, in E. Björklund & M. Larsson (eds) Swedish Cinema and the Sexual Revolution, 2016, pp. 11-20.
TRUFFAUT, François, “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français”, Cahiers du Cinéma, n°31, January 1954.