Summer with Monika (1953), dir. Ingmar Bergman


Adapted from the 1951 novel by Per Anders Fogelström, who collaborated with Bergman on the adaptation, Summer with Monika acts as a portrait of working class life in Stockholm, as young Harry (Lars Ekborg) works days away in Forsbergs stacking glasses; Monika (Harriet Andersson) works as a shop girl in a grocers. Harry is constantly denigrated, considered a “sack of potatoes”. Harry seeks a small act of revenge in defiance, hesitant to push a glass until it finally falls to the ground. In the pub, we see the men around him are twice his age, without anyone to relate to. Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, a frequent collaborator of Bergman’s, perfectly encapsulates Stockholm during this period, presenting the intersection of the city with modernity as trams pass by; Fischer pays close attention to frames and silhouettes.

Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer focuses closely upon frames and silhouettes

Harry and Monika never want to slave away in the world of work, seeking to escape norms set upon them by society. Oversleeping one morning upon his father’s boat, Monika convinces Harry to quit work and find time to themselves. But roles quickly become domestic: Harry must put bread on the table as they search the archipelago for something to eat. The concepts of the teenager and separation between childhood and the working world of adulthood are constructs: as the documentary Teenage (2013) explores, the notion of the teenager was formed through the changes within society and status of the post-war period; each generation has their own unique relationship with youth.

Their dream of travelling the world has a source: in the Garbio cinema, they watch a Hepburn film, Song of Love (1947). Monika is led to tears; Harry is disinterested. Song of Love fosters values of love and escapism and a good life that Monika attempts to emulate, dooming it to fail. Films directing our gaze back at the screen itself offers a unique approach to our own relationship with cinema: the cinematic screens within Donnie Darko (2001), Maniac (2012) and La La Land (2016) offer self-reflexivity, allowing us to see who are characters are and their values. Cinema extends beyond its escapist tendency into a confrontation to who we are and what we hold onto. Monika stares into high street windows, wanting to wear the clothes glamourised by women, to buy a dress and be fashionable. She performs her sexuality based on films themselves, describing Harry as “just like someone in a film”. Bergman embraces a female perspective, subverting the male perspective of the original novel. As Laura Hubner writes, Harriet Andersson represents “the arrival of a new kind of female star” with a “natural beauty that shuns Hollywood glamour”, whilst harkening back to “Bergman’s early male heroes who rebel against society”.

Monika’s dream emerges from the cinema itself

The pair’s intense sexual desire follows the rush of the early stages of a young relationship. Monika is in charge of her sexuality, having slept with other men before. As she smokes cigarettes, she connotes sheer sexuality. Perhaps the best-known example of teenage melodrama and rebellion from the same period is Rebel Without a Cause (1955), depicting a fragmented parental relationship and concerns around gang violence. Harry and Monika never feel content with home lives; family life seems to just be reading magazines. Around their parents, they have to monitor how they express physical intimacy, putting their clothes back on. Even on the boat, moored to the coastline, they cannot escape family entirely; it’s Harry’s father’s boat. The boat is never the dream imagined: space is cramped, somewhat subduing the freedom of sexuality where they have space to get undressed together. Without responsibility, there’s infinite freedom as an endless summer against a seemingly endless landscape. But all summers end one day; time seeming stretchless and endless must pass.

Summer with Monika was shot on a small budget, filming over three weeks in July on Ornö Island, reshooting and dubbing scenes afterwards; Bergman promised producers it would be “the world’s cheapest film”; production lasted until October. As a couple left to themselves, Harry and Monika have a space to have sex in peace and go skinny-dipping on the island. As Bergman commented in a self-interview, “I haven’t heard that nude swimming has become obligatory in Swedish filmmaking. But I think it should be.” But they cannot escape creature comforts, or even other people: Monika brews coffee; Harry shaves with his razor. Unsatisfied by cooking mushrooms, Monika searches out a garden of fruit but steals meat, getting in trouble. A fellow tourist sets their boat on fire; Harry must prove his masculinity and defend against him, getting in a fight framed in close-up by Fischer. Nature has power beyond them, with Fischer emphasising the landscape and the island’s constant storms. Harry and Monika become reduced to ants as Fischer emphasises the landscape around them.

Landscapes of the archipelago stretch on beyond Harry and Monika

As much as they try to sing songs and read books, they cannot escape responsibility, talking to each other about their issues in life and feelings of loneliness as they drink away. Harry and Monika vow to be monogamous as they move into their next stage of life: remain together, raise kids, study to be an engineer. They speak from youth, whilst attempting to factor in and deal with mature responsibility. Summer with Monika bears comparison to Summer Interlude (1951), a ballet dancer’s recollection upon youth from adulthood, recalling a sense of innocence and dreams of adulthood upon a romance on the archipelago that ends in tragedy. As Hubner writes, Monika follows the “seasonal cycle” of Bergman’s 1950s films with “renewed dynamism”, through their meeting, romance, disillusionment and maturity.

Bergman was in part working from his own experience: Bergman and Andersson had had a brief relationship. But in its initial US release, Monika’s vision of teenage youth and romance was distorted and devalued, released as an exploitation film re-edited by Kroger Babb, Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl, emphasising the film’s lewd sexuality and inserting footage from a nudist resort on Long Island. In Los Angeles, the film was confiscated as pornography, its distributor fined and sentenced to three months in prison.

But Monika is continually affected by male ownership over her sexuality. At work, colleague Lelle constantly torments her as a sexual target; she’s sexually assaulted, placing his hand up her skirt, groping her breasts and pushing her around. Harry’s boss considers her a slut, not someone to get involved with. On the island, Harry and Monika find a mirror to their relationship, as older couples dance away the evening at a resort. Summer with Monika is a cyclical narrative, as Harry and Monika begin to look more and more like their parents: chaotic, loveless, abusive, even as fighting authority seemed their deepest desire. As Hubner writes, Monika “has no alternative other than to become financially dependent on a man […] or to repeat the poverty cycle like her mother”.

As Monika becomes pregnant, Harry and Monika appeal to the courts for a licence to marry despite being underage, dressing smart. Looking after a baby is immensely difficult, contending with work, the economy and the constant need for new clothes. Harry and Monika find it difficult to keep up their old sense of life, forced back into industrial jobs, accepting reality as it is. Their relationship quickly becomes abusive: Monika attempts to oscillate their relationship between arguments and intimacy, but Harry punches her. Monika abandons her child, but the strain on her isn’t difficult to see. As Monika smokes her cigarette into the camera in direct gaze with the audience, we feel her pain. In the final scene, Bergman flashes back to the beach, recalling the past with a sense of its passage and acceptance as Marie did in Summer Interlude.

Summer with Monika may not be the first film one thinks of when approaching Bergman’s career. Bergman had been working in film for over a decade, honing his craft working in theatre, careers he kept simultaneous. Summer with Monika never had a chance to be taken seriously outside of Sweden, but the success of later works allowed for reappraisal as Bergman’s name became more prominent. Monika is an essential work, acting as a powerful portrait of the inevitability of change and the impermanence of young relationships.

Your Name (2016), dir. Makoto Shinkai


This review contains spoilers

I try to keep track of every new film coming out. But one day, browsing the showtimes for a local Birmingham cinema, The Electric, I suddenly find the showtimes for an anime film I’ve never heard of. Its reviews are almost universally positive; in its native Japan, it has dominated the box office for 13 weeks in a row. No home media nor VOD release is on the horizon, though Funimation is planning a nationwide US release next year. 5 ODEONs, plus a handful of Vues and Cineworlds, even considered showing the film.

On the last day of screening, with all deadlines passed, I made a pilgrimage to Birmingham. For the briefest moments, I wondered whether a crowded train to New Street, a tram, a bus and a nighttime return was worth it. I sat in a vegan coffee shop, enjoying my latte more than any film could.

In the current cinema climate, the very notion of a subtitled foreign language film playing in an ODEON seems kind of incredible. Even the most interesting new films get overlooked. The ODEON at Broadway Plaza seems kind of tacky: a facade of a 1930s cinema emblazoned with a badly painted Nicholson Joker and Episode I Obi-Wan, as if a decade and a half of cinema had never happened.

But let it be said: Your Name is one of the most incredible cinema experiences of the year.

Makoto Shinkai has directed films for over a decade, but Your Name is probably his most ambitious project. Its genre seems impossible to quantify: a sci-fi film about a falling meteor; a fantasy about shifting between body; a high school comedy about modern Tokyo; a coming of age drama set in a rural town.

To western viewers without a Crunchyroll account, anime is known by a couple of shining examples, dominating over all others. But anime has never been one genre: Studio Ghibli produces both youthful fantasies and emotional war dramas; Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) helped define the cyberpunk genre; whilst something like Mind Game (2004) is a yakuza fighting, Moby Dick-infused acid trip.

From a western perspective, some of Your Name‘s scenes seem though no other culture could produce it. In its opening sequence, its razor sharp editing as Mitsuha and Taki’s lives are mirrored seems sheer insanity. The title credits are a music video (sung by Japanese band Radwimps), tracing Mitsuha as she grows up. The film falsely places us within sequences, only to exit them through a thought balloon held above a character’s head.

Your Name could only ever exist within Japanese culture. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki affected the Japanese consciousness, informing its cultural objects: the destructive power of Gojira (1954); the nuclear hellscapes of Akira; Japan’s most iconic directors, from Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August (1991) and his uncompleted work on Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), to Shinodo’s Children of Hiroshima (1952). Toho’s Gojira shifted to a full colour children’s fantasy; Tokyo rose up, rebuilt after the war to become a neon metropolis.

70 years later, the shadow of Hiroshima still hangs over, living on in the elder generation. But there is another influence: the 2011 Fukushima disaster, catastrophic to the urbanised landscape, leading to cancer growth and ongoing plans to decontaminate the landscape, as life goes on as normal.

In the world of Your Name, three years have passed since the rural landscape of Lake Itomori was ravaged by a meteor, killing 600, enshrined in memory through photobooks and lists of the dead. To the American consciousness, the meteor is not a symbol of the bomb, but as a fun action movie in Armageddon (1998), or, as Adam Curtis argues in HyperNormalisation (2016), a reflection of American anxieties which manifested as reality through 9/11.

Your Name’s elements can be found throughout American cinema: switching between the dreaming and waking lives of Taki and Mitsuha, it almost becomes Groundhog Day (1993), as every new day becomes paradoxical, trying to find an escape. But Groundhog Day was still largely a comedy. Your Name begins as a comedy, before shifting towards something much more serious.

The unreal presentation of dreams is nothing new: through Waking Life (2001)’s meandering, philosophical quest, we begin to wonder what separates the dream and the real. In Inception (2010), we ask similar questions, framed within an action movie aesthetic.  Your Name refuses to give us a reason as to why Taki and Mitsuha’s lives are connected; any science fiction or fantastical explanation would ruin the mystery. Like Waking Life and Groundhog Day, it becomes an unraveling puzzle box: each day informs the next day, not existing in isolation. Taki and Mitsuha exert more control on an uncontrollable world, coordinating their lives through diary entries and text messages on their phones.

Though Taki and Mitsuha’s lives draw an interesting parallel, gendered life is not the film’s primary focus, playing a role more often for comedy. Within the continuum of gender, we become aware that feminine and masculine qualities must interact to create a cohesive whole. Taki embraces feminine qualities, speaking in the feminine tense, and stitching a flower pattern on his crush Miki’s ripped dress, securing a date with her over the hundred other waiters with a raging boner for her; one of Taki’s straight male classmates ends up being all “I’m gay 4 u”.

As though she were an anime cliche, Mitsuha wakes up every new morning to fulfil the male gaze, squeezing her breasts and looking at herself naked in the mirror – becoming a repeated joke, undercutting the film’s more serious elements.

Taki’s life in Tokyo represents modern Japan: yet as he notes in his job interview, even Japan is vulnerable to devastation. Unlike Mitsuha’s concrete high school, his is built on massive glass frames; living in a cramped apartment with his dad, he travels to school on the city’s subway, spends his lunch breaks in nearby cafes with his friends, and micromanages his life on his cellphone, as he works his evenings away in a posh restaurant.

Mitsuha’s Japan represents centuries of tradition – tradition which is disappearing, new ones embedded within. Her grandmother speaks of traditions of two centuries ago, as we see the rituals of fermenting sake, ingested in the mouth before being spat out. Where Tokyo has entire districts of cafés and restaurants, Itomori has iced coffee in a solitary vending machine. Teenagers wear American style baseball shirts; power cables embed themselves within the landscape. The film ends up feeling like a coming of age film set in suburban America, as Mitsuha seeks out a better life in the distance, unable to be perceived or experienced.

Enshrined within tradition is spirituality – their grandmother walks with Mitsuha and her sister through the natural landscape, telling us that, in death, we must give something in return. Outside the modern city, the rural landscape carries a spiritual power of its own. Even when life is gone, the landscape survives, untouched by death. In the film’s most powerful scene, walking across a seemingly unending landscape, Taki tries to cross between realms to touch Mitsuha’s ethereal hand; separated by space and time, outside of physical dimension, yet together through shared location.

Like with Groundhog Day, small differences alter the nature of reality: passing trains, or two people walking past each other on the street, or the person you see on the other table at the coffee shop. Taki and Mitsuha never truly meet within the film, creating awareness of the fleetingness of romantic destiny. Taki follows after Mitsuha out of instinct, sketchbook page in hand, dragging his friends along on a train ride through rural Japan; a chance conversation with a cafe owner informs his destiny. In Taki’s search for Mitsuha, he uncovers a cave painting, predicting the fall of the meteor, as it fell 1200 years earlier: traditions and civilisations rise and fall. Yet this destiny is overlooked even by modernity: news reports fail to predict its impact; Mitsuha’s father, acting as the town’s mayor, has no system in place to evacuate in the event of an impact, refusing the very possibility of it occurring.

Your Name could have played with the time paradox, creating a deus ex machina: reversing the devastation, moving the meteor’s path and saving a generation. The film plays with this somewhat, but like Hiroshima and Fukushima, as much as we pray, as much as we hope, we cannot undo the past. We cannot escape fate.

Safe to say, this was genuinely incredible and one of the best cinema experiences of the year.

As much as I wanted to, not even A Monster Calls could bring me to cry.

Your Name succeeded.

Keep the Lights On (2012), dir. Ira Sachs


Before documenting contemporary NYC life in his films Love is Strange (2014) and Little Men (2016), Ira Sachs created a portrait of New York City through the lens of the relationship between Erik and Paul, between the years 1998 to 2006. Where Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) documented the shifting stages of the heterosexual American family through the 2000s in the character of Mason, Sachs presents the shifting nature of gay American life.

By the film’s release in late 2012, the state of New York had legalised same sex marriage. Four years later, the Supreme Court ruled same sex marriage legal in all fifty states. Love is Strange was able to present this reality through an elderly couple. Keep the Lights On retraces a different era, the pre-Grindr world of phone sex, infidelity, clubbing and casual hookups; an era where queer representation in the media began to enter the mainstream, in everything from Will and Grace (1998-2006), Queer as Folk (1999-2000), Cruel Intentions (1999) to episodes of The Simpsons like Three Gays of the Condo (2003); as civil partnerships and same sex marriage began to enter the agenda as public perception shifted.

However, the film does not romanticise its era. There is no sense of the optimism and fears of cyberspace; it does not fetishise the World Trade Center (indeed, the city’s skyline is never shown); nor does it position our protagonist’s lives around the aftermath of 9/11. Bush’s name is never mentioned; American Idol doesn’t appear on any television screens. Sachs positions a timeless narrative; the era is only communicated through the film’s title cards, its cellphones and its iMacs. Shot on 16mm, its visual style removes the late 90s and early 00s from its clean, digital HD aesthetic, in favour of physical film that recalls the imperfect images of the underground gay cinema of the 60s-80s, in parallel to Erik exploring an underground gay artist of the mid-20th century in his documentary.

We shift from the lingering late 90s fears of HIV, only a couple of years after the height of the AIDs epidemic, to the modern face of homosexuality. Perhaps there is a sense of the autobiographical: Sachs explores the uncertainty of establishing a career in filmmaking, beginning in the late 90s (when he begun his career in film), parallel to the uncertainties of a relationship.

The relationship between Erik and Paul is never presented as something for the audience to root for; I spent the duration of the film waiting for them to break up for good. The film often incorporates sex scenes, yet they hold a narrative function. Sexuality becomes a form of procrastinating the issues within their relationship, and as a means of escape. The film’s sex scenes are neither PG-13 nor Helix Studios: the film acknowledges that pensises exist, but it also acknowledges that it is painful, and often not pleasurable. Sexuality highlights isolation: when Paul hooks up with a rent boy, as Erik sits in the other room, he decides to enter the other room and hold Paul’s hand. But Paul still lays on the bed, fucked by and making out with the rent boy. In an earlier scene, Paul decides to sleep in a separate bed, as Erik forces them to share a bed.

This is not an idealised gay romance of monogamy, with a sprinkling of formulaic melodrama; it is a realistic one. It takes Erik and Paul nine years to realise that romantic, physical intimacy can transcend sexual intimacy; yet soon after, he encounters Igor in the streets of New York, and they decide on a dinner date. Erik and Paul’s relationship exists as a fluctuating thing, before eventually deciding they need real time apart.

As Erik struggles to find stability within the eternally early stages of his relationship, his friend Claire faces the instabilities of the heterosexual world. On the surface, she faces stability: a house and a partner, as Erik becomes more and more detached from his own flat, instead often being defined by the flats of other men. But she also faces anxiety around the ticking body clock of maternity, pressuring Erik to take on a role as a surrogate father.

Keep the Lights On is not the height of queer cinema. Looking forward, another film around the issues gay men face feel rote, in the face of bi-erasure, trans narrative relegated to cis narratives, and the near non-existence of asexual or non-binary representation. Yet it takes a strong place within the canon of Ira Sachs’ films as a promising work.