Befitting its title, Summer Interlude represents a moment of transition in the career of Ingmar Bergman. Already five years and nine feature films into his career, the Swedish master would pivot decisively with this by turns serene and devastating 1951 film, which solidified an array of themes and aesthetic distinctions which he would skillfully enhance and expand on for the remainder of his working life.
The darkly intimate character studies of Bergman's formative years, among them Thirst and To Joy, yielded, as the decade turned, to a preoccupation with nostalgia and the transience of love as a kind of synchronized waltz with the changing of the seasons. The characters in Summer Interlude perfectly embodied this period of artistic growth through a naïve romanticism—eventually manifesting itself as an acute sense of maturation—a facing-up to life's unexpected turns of event and, as a result, cultivating a determinism within both Bergman and his protagonists, which each would carry through an unforeseen future.
Starring Maj-Britt Nilsson and Birger Malmsten—perhaps the two most underrated Bergman actors, here giving him what are probably their best performances up to that point—as lovers in the throes of new romance, navigating their passion through the summer months and along the coast of Smådalarö, Sweden, a small island where Bergman had spent much of his youth vacationing with his parents. The nostalgia, appropriately, runs directly from Bergman to the film, as Nilsson's Marie reminiscences idyllically about her brief rendezvous with Henrik, which ends in tragedy and continues to cloud her personal and professional life as a ballet dancer.
When Marie, in the present day, mysteriously receives Henrik's diary, it sets off a chain of pastoral memories and vivid recollections about their doomed love (Marie thinks, "Days filled with fun and caresses. Nights of waking dreams. When did we sleep?"), which Bergman films with a serene, sensitive, and gentle gaze. And yet ominous waves break the shoreline on occasion (the bleat of what Henrik calls the "eagle owl" signaling impending danger, among other hints which spontaneously cripple Marie), threading Bergman's chief thematic concern, death, into the pair's romantic fable.
Beginning to simultaneously hone and accentuate his style, Bergman captures, via Gunnar Fischer's high-contrast lensing, both the initial, lyrical encounters of perfect strangers and the encroaching paranoia of Marie's latter years with deft craftsmanship. The casual, wide-angle framings of Marie and Henrik's frolics along the archipelago, and the subsequent, nonintrusive intimacy conjured as they begin to fall in love, stands in contrast to the cluttered, claustrophobic, almost hallucinogenic dressing rooms wherein Marie attempts to reconcile her thwarted dreams with her current, shrouded persona of performance, which continues to narrow her potential for emotional escape.
"You don't dare take your makeup off. And you don't dare put it on," the troupe's magician, Coppelius, curtly declares late in the film, at Marie's lowest point. It's this artificial construction of reality, a defense enabled and sustained by performance, which Bergman would continue to return to as a major theme in such films as The Magician, Hour of the Wolf, and Persona, among others. But despite some of the film's heavier moments, Bergman's bleak worldview had yet to fully take precedence, and Summer Interlude is defined mainly by its bittersweet reveries and romanticized flourishes, even ending, for Marie, on a note of hope and earned perseverance. By approaching the past through a medium he was just beginning to master—and with a similar sense of perseverance—Bergman reached the first of many new artistic plateaus which would eventually elevate him to the upper echelon of world cinema. And it was with Summer Interlude that he took this first full step—and made his first great film.
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Always accommodating to Bergman's extensive filmography, the Criterion Collection has now graciously debuted Summer Interlude on Region 1 audiences in both DVD and Blu-Ray editions. Their 1080p, MPEG-4 AVC transfer is in the film's original 1.37:1 aspect ratio and is presented in a very clean, sharp rendition. Black and gray levels are balanced and properly delineated and the image is smooth with only brief snippets of scratches and other damage turning up at random intervals. Contrast is steady and grain is light, though certainly perceptible, particularly in the indoor sequences. Close-ups show an impressive amount of detail and, overall, the picture is rather outstanding for a 60-year-old-plus film.
Criterion again stays true to their source with an uncompressed, linear PCM monaural soundtrack. Dialogue is crisp and clearly decipherable, while Erik Nordgren's alternately lilting and dramatic score is given just the right amount of push without overpowering other elements in the mix. Bergman was already making great use of the odd sound effect, and much of Maria's mounting dread and intuition is translated via off-screen noises, which Criterion's newly mastered track picks up and accentuates to an effective degree.
Aside from a handsome booklet with an informative essay by Swedish film scholar and Bergman expert Peter Cowie, there are no supplements to speak of, a rather disconcerting look for a package which is being simultaneously released by Criterion with the rather-stacked Summer with Monika Blu-ray. And rather unfortunate still considering the important role the film played in Bergman's career.
Ingmar Bergman's pivotal Summer Interlude makes it's Region 1 debut in a pristine looking transfer from the Criterion Collection, though unfortunately without any digital extras to contextually align a film which set the course for one of the Swedish master's richest decades.