Monday, May 9, 2011

Those summer nights...

Anyone who’s lived in a cold climate knows there are certain rites that seem only to transpire during the summer, and the briefer the summer, the more urgently those rites are conjured. In anticipation of summer, Criterion has released two films on blu-ray that brilliantly examine the sort of bacchanalian follies that accompany the coming season.

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) was Ingmar Bergman’s first international hit, reuniting Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand, the nimble, charismatic stars of Bergman’s A Lesson in Love (1954), which like Smiles, is a romantic comedy, a genre Bergman rarely worked in (in the cinema at least) despite his obvious facility. Set in 1901, thus taking just enough historical distance to emphasize how little the nature of romantic entanglements alters with shifts in social mores, the film is indeed very funny. It’s also, more characteristically for Bergman, sexy, poignant, and painful. Smiles on a Summer Night is funny precisely because it’s painful.

Fredrik Egerman (Björnstrand) is an attorney sliding into middle age, attempting to soften the blow by marrying a woman less than half his age. He treasures her more than he desires her. He has photographs taken of her that he admires with the pride of ownership. Or paternity. Fredrik also has a son, roughly the same age as his new bride, who studies theology, broods almost professionally, is agonizingly self-absorbed, and tries to seduce the maid (Harriet Andersson) with lectures on virtue.

Desirée Armfeldt (Dahlbeck) is an actress. Closer in age to Fredrik (Dahlbeck was only 25, but possessed a preternatural, very sensual maturity), she was once his mistress. These days she has a thing going with a married, mustachioed, clownishly egomaniacal military officer, but it seems to have run its course. (One of my favourite lines is spoken in venomous deadpan by the officer’s jealous, deeply tormented wife: “Men are horrible, vain and conceited. And they have hair all over their bodies.”) An unexpected reunion with Fredrik inspires Desirée to hatch a plan that will correct the current flawed romantic geometries. It all goes down in her wealthy mother’s country mansion. Fredrik and his wife and son, the officer and his wife, not to mention their lusty servants, are all invited. The plan involves wine infused with mother’s milk and stallion sperm, a duel, chambers custom designed for facilitating extramarital sex, and at least one attempted suicide. The suicide, incidentally, is a comic highlight.

The characters in
Smiles are archetypes of a sort, types that especially recall Chekhov. Like Chekhov, Bergman fills out these types with loving details and idiosyncratic comic exaggerations that his superb cast executes with nuance and efficiency. The result is a film at once delightful and quietly knowing, about age, gender roles, heartache, and the tumult so often left in true passion’s wake.

Fat Girl (2001), perhaps the most perfect work from writer/director/provocateur Catherine Breillat, concerns the sexual initiations experienced by two sisters during summer holiday. The elder, more attractive sister, 15-year-old Elena (Roxanne Mesquida), meets an Italian law student. One night, in a disquieting, transfixing, all-too-recognizable bravura early sequence, he uses his powers of negotiation to shamelessly guilt-trip Elena into anal sex (anal, he promises, doesn’t count). The sisters share a bedroom in the family’s summer cottage, thus the younger, overweight sister, 13-year-old Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), witnesses the entire transaction. She becomes an absorbing mirror.

Breillat’s camera seems always to be moving, but slowly, not prowling but studying, never intrusive, yet never strictly observational either.
Fat Girl, which follows the events of this fateful summer to their abrupt and arresting conclusion, is built upon relatively few episodes, a model of concision, yet every sequence breathes: nothing is rushed. Breillat’s work repeatedly examines female sexual persona in a way that feels almost compulsively subversive, pushing equally against erotic sentimentality, male fantasies and feminist conventions with formal rigour, intellectual confidence and almost always, somehow, a sense of play. There are too many risks being taken in Fat Girl, too much spontaneity and exploration, for it to feel schematic. And I don’t know that Breillat’s ever found anyone who’s embodied her sensibility more acutely than Reboux, who was discovered by Breillat in a McDonald’s. Pretending that two posts in a swimming pool are her fiancé and lover, lifting her nightgown to examine her barely formed breasts and whisper to herself “putain,” letting her sister ostensibly comfort her by shoving a giant toast into her mouth, Reboux gives one of the most remarkable, unaffected and devastating performances of the last decade.

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