Why Do Some People Have All The Luck While Others Are Miserable? Summer With Monika (1953)

I am currently working my way through the fascinating set of episodes entitled The Story of Film: An Odyssey which are currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly, I might look into writing a brief blog about them when finishing.  The expertly crafted documentary has served as a refresher course on some of my favorite moments in film, while also reminding me that there are a ton of films, both globally and genre wise that I have yet to see, or am even aware of for that matter.  While I knew about Summer With Monika due to its relatively recent Criterion release, I had sat it aside as something I might get around to watching, an action that seems far to frequent when concerning the works of Bergman.  However, when the episode of European New Wave film came about a brief scene from Summer With Monika popped up and I was instantly captivated and pushed aside who knows what film in order to assure that it would be included at some point on this month of women oriented posts.  I am glad I did so because, in a uniquely Bergman way, the film manages to weave together an existential reflection on suffering and satisfaction, while also being a multi-narrative coming of age tale set against a working class Swedish landscape so bare and disparaging that it makes Bergman's most critically well received film, a personal favorite of mine, The Seventh Seal look optimistic.  Many seem content to claim Orson Welles as the master of black and white filmmaking and while I would never question his relevance or magnitude as a director, I think the magical minimalism one receives from the work of Bergman rivals, and at times surpasses, Welles on multiple levels, not to mention, Bergman's deceptively innocent narrative, which begin optimistic and carefree only to come clashing into the bitter truths of reality.  Upon my initial viewing of Moonrise Kingdom, I suggested that it was quite a great film, and I do still think it better than a lot of things that were released last year, however, when I realize that the quirky beach romance scene is heavily lifted from a far more sobering scene in Summer With Monika, I am reminded that the "borrowing" Wes Anderson often does places him in a category far similar to that of Tarantino than as an indie god that he seems intent on maintaining.

Summer With Monika, focuses, as the title suggests on a summer spent with a girl named Monika (Harriet Andersson), but the narrative does not solely focus on Monika, but, instead; her relationship with a young man named Harry (Lars Ekborg) whom she takes a liking to after bumming a match off of him at a restaurant.  The two instantly fall head-over-heels for one another spending countless days and nights together, so much so that both eventually quit their jobs in order to assure plenty of time together, yet, what starts off as innocent dates to cheesy American movies evolves into a very serious and intimate relationship that is not wholly embraced by their friends and family, particularly considering that Monika appears to have romantic pasts with multiple men in the town whose jealousy is often directed in a physical manner upon Harry.  After one to many instances of frustration and condemnation the two commandeer a family members boat and take a trip to a secluded beach.  It is there that they set up a small pseudo-life together eating what they can acquire off the land and sharing in a very physical relationship.  Yet, when Monika discovers that she is pregnancy their faux-adulthood comes crashing into reality and every action and though its predicated upon assuring the safety of the unborn child, including Monika's desire for real meat, which leads to them stealing from a rich household, only to get caught in the process.  Eventually realizing that they can no longer survive in the wild the two return to their town where they are faced with needing jobs, Harry goes to school to be an engineer while also helping Monika raise a child.  Monika grows discontent quickly without being able to spend frivolously and engage in a carefree lifestyle.  She eventually leaves Harry out of frustration at their lack and is shown talking with men at bars, at which point Monika breaks the fourth wall in a defiant reaction to viewers condemnation.  Harry is shown taking care of the child on his own and the film ends rather abruptly, no hope for the reunion, because in reality young love rarely works out perfectly.

It would be easy for a viewer to call this movie depressing and, as a result, not very watchable.  It would also be simple to dismiss Monika as a vindictive and ignorant character and thus not likable.  However, both situations absolutely betray the complexities present within Bergman's beautiful film.  A certain portion of people go to movies to escape the woes of reality and hope to be shown something that affirms a higher good in the world.  Those persons are not who Bergman made films for, particularly considering that he was highly personal with the imagery and narratives he created, whether it be their scathing inquiries into the existence of God, or perplexing reflections on the possibility of romantic ideals in an abrasive modernist society.  For Bergman, and for Monika in this film, normalcy and expectation are far from comforting and, in fact, betray any sense of progress of self-affirmation.  Monika is not a vengeful character as so many reviewers seem to suggest, I would argue that she is a victim of modernity, in that she seeks answers to her own existence, one she hopes to detach from the suffering and woes of her working class parents, as well as the consuming longing of every male she seems to encounter.  It appears for much of the narrative that she has achieved this sort of free floating state of escapism with Harry, which is beautifully made into a metaphor with the boat, yet, when that constantly moving separation from the tragedies of reality is destroyed, out of what seems to be ungrounded malice that reality returns and no amount of assurance or hard work by Harry can help Monika deny her chains of working class oppression.  As such she begins her quest again, although her recent experiences seem to have darkened her prospects of escape, literally so in the scene when she breaks the fourth wall.  Instead, Monika, Harry and one could say the viewers are left to embrace the fleeting memories of touches, sounds and dances only to know that it is these infrequent moments of happiness that allow for the misery of everyday life to be bearable.

Key Scene:  Monika and Harry dancing on the pier will break your heart and it is at a point in the film when you still have hope for their relationships survival, but it is executed with such symmetrical, minimalist detachment that it clearly serves to distance this ideal moment form the aforementioned tragedies of reality.

This is a masterful film, but one should expect nothing less from the great Swedish director.  I watched this on Hulu and it looked fantastic, however, I intend to get the bluray and suggest you do the same.

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