Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika gets the ups and downs of teen romance. It understands the intoxicating “us against the world” fantasy of running away with someone, just as it’s wise enough to acknowledge that the harsh reality isn’t avoided so easily. Bergman respects his characters too much to take a side (although he does ultimately favor getting one’s shit together), a choice that makes Summer with Monika the simultaneously lovely and heartbreaking drama it is.
Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson) are two working-class youths living in the ’50s Swedish equivalent of a Mellencamp song. Stuck in jobs that respectively have them browbeaten and sexually harrassed on a daily basis, hopes of a better life arise the moment they cross paths. One swift courtship later, Harry and Monika are off to leave the world behind, eager to spend the rest of their days in an island getaway with no one to order them around. But summer is ending fast, and as their relationship grows more serious, the inevitable return home forces the kids to pick between accepting new responsibilities or remaining a child in an adult’s body.
It’s nice to see Summer with Monika give its subject matter a fair shake. So often do movies play up one extreme perspective over the other, either fetishizing romantic flings without a hint of emotional maturity and common sense to support them or condemning any and all affection in pious cautionary tales. Summer with Monika just lets its characters be who they are. Harry and Monika are young people from similar backgrounds with differing philosophies, and where they end up as they carve their own path through life is of their own doing, not through forced screenwriting dictations.
Even as it becomes clear that Monika isn’t ready to grow up and begins to drags Harry with her as she self-destructs, Bergman makes you aware of where her urges are coming from. We see her constantly groped by co-workers and nearly assaulted at one point, so it’s no wonder that she’s desperate to retreat into a dreamland and never come out. Andersson’s performance nails this aspect of the character, and while Monika does come off like a cartoonishly manipulative harpy near the end, you’re still convinced that she means the world to Harry. And speaking of Harry, Ekborg’s turn is equally balanced, starting off as a scatterbrained dreamer and ending as someone who’s accepted the onset of adulthood.
Subtitles or not, Summer with Monika should strike a chord with anyone about to take their first steps towards taking care of themselves. Its message was unfortunately cheapened back in the day when an American distributor cut it down to a little over an hour and highlighted its few nude scenes for the exploitation circuit. But restored to fine form by the intrepid lads of the Criterion Collection, Summer with Monika is back to be observed by and provoke thought in a new crop of cinema buffs.