The classic movie period was fading fast. The big studios were fraying, struggling to figure out nascent shifts in audience preferences. The coming mass dissemination of television had the moguls scared silly.
And, studio movies were still very much constrained by a self-censorship that absolutely, completely — no questions asked — precluded sexual frankness in films. Nudity was completely out except perhaps in those exotic European imports that no self-respecting major studio would touch.
These were the days when sexual liberation was often identified with Scandinavia, the source of countless “nudies” and more substantial films with — gasp! — sexual content. One of them was Ingmar Bergman’s 12th feature, 1953’s Summer With Monica.
Now you have to understand that the movie was released in Europe before the Swedish director became a cineaste idol, mesmerizing the art film world with such classic as 1957’s The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. (Somehow, Bergman’s work tends to be overlooked today, but that’s the subject of another blog.)
It’s not too much to say that Summer With Monica is one of Bergman’s very best films.
It’s about a pair of teenage lovers from arid, working class back rounds who somehow gain access to a borrowed motorboat to escape to a small island in the Baltic Coast, spending an idyllic summer far from the tedium of their daily lives and their demeaning jobs.
The couple romps in the open air, swims in the nude and discreetly copulate — which leads to a pregnancy. Forced to return to the real world in the fall, the couple faces a host of adult decisions which test the union far beyond the breaking point.
Summer with Monica is beautifully made, featuring superb performances from Harriet Andersson as the saucy 18-year-old title character and Lars Ekborg as her slightly more mature, 19-year-old lover.
The movie is magnificently shot in black and white by one of Bergman’s great cinematographers, Gunnar Fischer.
The director makes his mark boldly in the picture with astonishingly effective closeups of the main characters at key emotional moments. At one point, a tougher and more worldly Monica stares directly at the camera during a casual pickup in a bar. She almost taunts her audience. The scene is startling, puzzling and riveting.
No wonder that the celebrated French cineaste Jean-Luc Godard wrote that Summer With Monica was the most original film by the most original of filmmakers. It is to the cinema of today what ‘Birth of a Nation’ was to classical cinema. Oh, boy. Let’s just say that Godard liked the movie a lot.
Anyway, the movie’s entry into theaters in the U.S. was not a felicitous one. The inhibitions of the time meant that no self respecting distributor would step up to handle the film. Enter one Howard W. (“Kroger”) Babb, a Ohio-born producer-huckster who made a fortune in the Forties hustling a so-called sex hygiene quickie titled Mom and Dad.
Sex, or at least nudity, presented under the guise of public edification and cultural uplift, could sell, Babb found. He seized on Summer With Monica with enthusiasm.
He picked up distribution rights, edited out much of what Bergman had shot and played up the nudity angle — especially Andersoon’s very shapely butt. He dubbed in a wholly inappropriate musical score, re-titled the picture (Monica: The Story of a Bad Girl) and farmed it out to what is now called the “grind house” theatrical circuit.
It wasn’t until 2007 before the version of the movie that Bergman made was released in theatrically America. The good news is that last year, The Criterion Collection released a Blu-ray DVD version of Summer With Monica. It is a beauty and well worth seeking out.