To describe Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night as not quite a sex farce is to capture its unique blend of comic sophistication and slightly melancholic resignation. The story of the amorous pursuits of four couples involves plenty of sex, with frequently comical consequences, but while the characters fulfill generic roles, they are a little too detailed and idiosyncratic for purely farcical contrivance. Underneath all of it is a never-fully suppressed sadness, as if exploiting human frailties for comic effect is inevitably just a touch doleful.
The story is too complicated (and a little tedious) to outline in detail. Suffice to say that, like a classic farce, the action centers on who is sleeping with whom, but with the difference that the characters make little effort to conceal their affairs. Bergman favors character quirks and how they impact possibilities over plot mechanics. For example, lawyer Fredrik Egerman’s (Gunnar Björnstrand) virginal young bride Anne (Ulla Jacobsson) is so innocent of sexual matters that she does not even realize they are at the root of her dissatisfaction. On the other hand, Frederik’s son from an earlier marriage, Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam) is all too aware that his frustrations are driving him nuts. It’s a classic farcical set-up, but instead of succumbing to their desires and dealing with the comic consequences, Egerman and company are more true to themselves than the formula and seek other solutions to their problems—only to wind up pretty much where we would have expected.
Of the Bergman films I have seen, Smiles shows the most obvious debt to his theatrical background. That is partly because farce is a theatrical genre, and one of the characters, Desirée Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck) is an actress, but more fundamentally, while the action is “opened out,” the larger canvas never really adds up; you do not have a strong sense of the locations in relation to each other. And while all of the characters seem to know each other before the action begins, they are “introduced” to each other as if they do not in what feels like a bow to theatrical exposition. Such weaknesses do not work fatally against the results, but they do confuse things a little.
The combination of good humor, theatrical conceit and affectionate understanding of human shortcomings nonetheless results in a wry, bittersweet valentine for both the conventions of the genre and the mixed-up characters. Smiles is a very “knowing” film in the best sense: Bergman “knows” these characters as both people and as conventional types that underpin the action, lending their unpredictable behavior some stability and a sense that drama and comedy can provide the happy ending life does not guarantee. (Though in keeping with the film’s mixed moods, the ending might be better described as playful rather than happy.) Smiles of a Summer Night may start as farce, but it ends as a loving tribute to anyone mystified, enchanted and undone by lust and frustration.