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Laughing, but only on the outside

It was nothing new for Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman to tackle infidelity, but in 1955 he explored it in a comedy. In fact, Smiles of a Summer Night, being issued by Criterion in a Blu-ray version of its earlier DVD, ranks among the best social comedies on film. It stands easily alongside the work of filmmakers Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges.

The year is 1901. Desirée Armfeldt, an actress once involved with lawyer Fredrik Egerman, is having an affair with Count Malcolm, husband of Charlotte. Egerman has married the much younger Anne, still a virgin, who is intrigued by Egerman's scholarly son, Henrik. When Desirée comes to town for a play, complications arise, not least when the principals assemble at the estate of Desirée's mother, a former courtesan.

The degree to which these people overthink their lives is reflected in the carefree way Petra, Anne's maid, teases Henrik and takes up with Frid, a groom working at the estate. And the antics of the Egermans and the Malcolms are placed in perspective by the elder Armfeldt, a world-weary but worldly wise soul who tells her daughter that she should have seen the way things worked in the old days.

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Asked whether she might write her memoirs, the mother replies that she "got this mansion for promising not to write my memoirs." But she has clearly been reading Oscar Wilde, since Bergman invests so much of what she says with a Wildean outrageousness. "If people only knew how unhealthy it is to listen to what people say, they never would," she opines to her daughter, "and then they would feel so much better."

Talk turns occasionally to virtue and vice, but the characters' chief loyalty is to the credo, in the infamously self-centred words of Woody Allen, that "the heart wants what it wants." The worst offender is Count Malcolm, who rubs his wife's nose in the fact that he has a mistress. "I can tolerate my wife's infidelity," he barks, "but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger." Charlotte bears the humiliation, but not without shooting her gun at the mirror on a door seconds after her husband has passed through it.

The actors - Eva Dahlbeck as Desirée, Gunnar Bjornstrand as Fredrik, Harriet Andersson as Petra, on down the list - run expertly through the emotions: the gaiety, the cowardice, the hope, the melancholy. And they savour the epigrams, several of which made it into A Little Night Music, the Stephen Sondheim musical (with book by Hugh Wheeler) based on this film. A sample, again from Desirée's mother: "Solitaire is the only thing in life which demands complete honesty."

Woody Allen himself had a go at the film's spirit, though not its story, in his 1982 movie A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. That movie has its moments, but it sits in the older film's shadow. Bergman pulled off an ineffable triumph, achieved international success, and promptly immersed himself in such darker works as The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.

For the record, the three smiles of a summer night begin, as Frid shares them with Petra, with a smile for young lovers who "open their hearts and bodies." The second is "for the clowns, the fools, the unredeemable." The third is "for the sad, the depressed, the sleepless, the confused, the frightened, the lonely." No prizes for guessing that most of the characters in Smiles of a Summer Night fall into the second and third categories.


The Green Hornet (2011) Seth Rogen set out with co-writer and fellow Vancouver native Evan Goldberg (his partner on Superbad and Pineapple Express) to tweak the hero-sidekick dynamic. They wanted newspaper owner Britt Reid (a slimmed-down Rogen), alias the titular masked vigilante, to spend the film hanging out and arguing with his late father's mechanic and martial-arts whiz, Kato (Jay Chou), the smarter of the two (cf. the wise Watson and dumb Sherlock Holmes in Without a Clue). The studio wanted more action. What emerged was an uneasy blend of chatter and crime-fighting.

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A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010) In outline, this Norwegian film set in Oslo sounds like a too-familiar gangster film. Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgard), released from prison after 12 years, has trouble adapting to freedom and is under pressure from former associates to kill the guy who put him away. In practice, quirky touches and a vein of wry humour subvert stock characters. Best of all is Skarsgard, who starred in the original Insomnia, played one of Meryl Streep's old lovers in Mamma Mia!, and will have a major role in the remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He underplays Ulrik adroitly.

Fat Girl (À ma soeur, 2001) Ontario's censor board banned French director Catherine Breillat's film because of sexual scenes involving a 15-year-old girl (played by 18-year-old Roxane Mesquida), but allowed its release in 2003 after the distributors took legal action. The movie, out on Criterion, explores adolescent sexuality and sibling rivalry; the story is seen through the eyes of the girl's 12-year-old sister. It received good reviews (Rick Groen: "honest, poignant, somewhat sad") but has scenes that will shock and horrify (Groen again: "and, at the end, very disturbing"). Be advised.

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