For many moviegoers, the name Ingmar Bergman conjures dark psychological drama suffused with Nordic angst. Bergman newbies should usher themselves gently into the director’s world with his erotic teen romance Summer With Monika.
Monika (Harriet Andersson) is 17 and works in a grocery story where she is routinely sexually harassed. At home, she sleeps in the kitchen with her three younger siblings; her dad treats her mom well, but he hits Monika when he’s drunk. Harry (Lars Ekborg) is 19 and bullied by his foreman and boss in a crockery-packing and delivery store; his mom died when he was young and he lives with his frequently hospitalized father.
These working-class Stockholm kids meet in a café where Monika invites Harry to take her to a movie. The one they see is a sumptuous romance, toward the end of which the glamorous heroine tells the handsome hero he may kiss her. On the street afterward, Monika tells Harry he may kiss her. They become girlfriend and boyfriend.
Rebelling against their drab lives, they quit their thankless jobs, hijack Harry’s dad’s little motor boat, and head off to the Stockholm Archipelago for an extended erotic vacation. Each seems to have fallen in love with the other, but there’s a warning in the title of Bergman’s Summer With Monika: it promises Harry a finite experience.
Bergman fell in love with Andersson during the shoot and the film documents his desire for her. A shadow of her stripping off her clothes falls on Harry as he wakes from a doze on a beach. She sits opposite him, her naked back to the camera. His eyes flicker over her face and chest.
There is a close up of Monika looking back at Harry—her smile is both coy and inviting; it says, “Look at the gift I’m giving you.” Then she gets up and runs, plunging into a deep pool in the sand. Later, Bergman films her in shorts and a barely-there top splayed on the boat’s hood as Harry drives it seawards. Visually, Monika is a poor man’s odalisque; proud, earthy, and irreducibly sexy.
Harry and Monika’s kisses are hungry. They are hungrier still after Harry beats up his rival for Monika, who tries to sabotage their holiday—she is clearly turned on by the violence. But Monika’s passion for Harry starts to wane as food runs short and he proves himself a feeble hunter and gatherer.
When they try to steal provisions from a house, it is Monika who puts herself in danger. On the point of being arrested by a policeman, she steals a joint of meat and flees back to the boat. She tells Harry that if he won’t get food for them, she’ll get it herself. After she had run away from home earlier in the film, she had said to Harry, “I want you to fix things.” Away from the city, he is not quite up to it; we sense that he falls in her estimation.
A gaze of her own
Harry and Monika may be rebels, but they can’t escape traditional roles. Though Monika resists their return to Stockholm, her falling pregnant means they must go back when the summer ends. They marry, and the baby, a girl, is born.
Intent on being a provider, Harry trains to be an engineer. Work takes him away from home. With his aunt taking care of their baby, Monika has no intention of staying indoors. She is in a bar with a man when she looks provocatively into the camera, her lips parting in sensual defiance, for what seems an age. She is returning the male gaze with a triumphant gaze of her own.
The shot was revelatory in 1953 and remains so today. It is all too easy to judge Monika’s irresponsibility toward Harry and the child, especially as she had often talked before and during the summer trip of settling down with Harry and being the happy wife at home.
Is Monika feckless or simply someone who refuses to be enslaved by the social order? Her mind and body have their own needs. Harry, we learn, was not her first or most abiding love: this is the film’s second revelation.
Her hopes of a cozy future with Harry were sincere when she expressed them. Who are we to judge an 18-year-old girl, Bergman asks? Summer With Monika would prove pivotal in his transition into a director who would be as fully empathetic to women as any great male filmmaker.
Summer With Monika celebrates teenage passion as it passes, which is why it is the perfect film for millennials or anyone remembering their first sexual idyll. When Harry looks back on the summer, he recalls—via flashbacks—Monika at her most beautiful and erotic. For him, as for all of us, it is the flame that will never go out.
Summer With Monika is screening as part of Film Forum’s 47-film Ingmar Bergman retrospective. The dates are: February 23, 9pm; February 24, 8.30pm; February 26, 2pm, 7pm, 10.15pm; February 27th, 4.30pm, 8.40pm; March 3, 3.20pm. Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, NY 10014. Tel: (212) 727-8110. The film is also available on a Criterion Collection DVD or multi-format disc.