Midsummer night’s dvds

A pair of films to celebrate the coming of the warmer months

There are certain rites that seem only to transpire during 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, a romantic comedy, a genre Bergman rarely worked in despite his obvious facility. The film is very funny. It's also, more characteristically for Bergman, sexy, poignant and painful. It's funny precisely because it's painful.
Fredrik (Gunnar 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 with lectures on virtue.

Desirée (Eva Dahlbeck) is an actress, and was once Fredrik's mistress. These days she has a thing going with a married, mustachioed, clownishly egomaniacal military officer, but it seems to have run its course. So Desirée hatches 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 characters in Smiles are archetypes of a sort that 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 passion's wake.

Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl (2001) concerns the sexual initiations experienced by two sisters during a summer holiday. The elder, more attractive sister, 15-year-old Elena (Roxanne Mesquida), meets an Italian law student who 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. It's a model of concision, yet every sequence breathes. Breillat's work repeatedly examines female sexual persona in a way that feels almost compulsively subversive, pushing 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 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 gives one of the most remarkable, unaffected and devastating performances of the last decade. V

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