*With spoilers*One of the worst tragedies—I should imagine—would be to subscribe to a system of values that you know is screwing you over, but to be unable to conceive of life through any other framework. This is a tragedy that the late great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman explored in a number of contexts: the knight trapped within medieval Christianity in The Virgin Spring; the couple trapped within the institution of bourgeois marriage in Scenes from a Marriage; and the rebellious young couple who foolishly seek to establish a normal, respectable life for themselves in Bergman’s 1953 film, Summer with Monika.
First, a word about the nudity. Summer with Monika is one of the first feature films ever to feature real live naked people. The five seconds or so that the titular Monika (Harriet Anderson) appears nude are remarkably tame by modern standards, but at the time it was downright scandalous. American distributors released an edited version of the film called Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl, and this contributed in no small part to Sweden’s reputation as a sexually permissive country (and it also led to the production of a lot of trashy sexploitation films with “Swedish” settings). But times have changed and we’re now much more civilized (heavy sarcasm), and we can look past the titillation to see Summer with Monika for the visceral tragedy that it is.
Monika is a young working-class woman living with her parents and (too many) siblings in a cramped apartment. She falls in love with Harry, a young man with a lousy job and a dysfunctional relationship with his chronically ill father. Having had enough of their respective families and jobs and the generally shitty way they’ve been treated, they steal Harry’s father’s boat and run away together and have a series of sexy, romantic adventures. And then Monika becomes pregnant. And suddenly, the two young rebels decide that the really cool thing to do would be to get married, and Monika can become a housewife while Harry gets a job and goes to night school to eventually become an engineer. And so they come back to the lives they fled and end up living a miserable and impoverished existence together.
Idiotic young people. What were you thinking? How did you think this would work out? They saw how miserable their parents were and they fled from it, only to return to set up the exact same kind of lives for themselves. And in a way their fate is just as tragic as that of Max von Sydow’s vengeful knight in The Virgin Spring. They all lack the intellectual equipment to conceive of alternative ways of living, even though the current system is totally inadequate to meet their needs. In the end, Summer with Monika isn’t about sex, but rather it’s about drudgery and resentment and regret.