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.
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”.
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.
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.