My love of Ingmar Bergman films goes back to Sixth Form when a trotskyist teacher showed us clips of old films, including Ginger and Fred, Antonioni, Godard, Buñuel and Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’. I’ll be forever grateful to him because that lesson changed my life and I’ve been collecting and watching classic films ever since. Bergman was, by then, already deeply unfashionable and had not been making films for some time but I’ll always defend him as one of the all-time greats. I love the actors he worked with and the way he directed them, the strong female roles in many of his films, the honesty with which he confronted difficult themes and then there’s the pure technical brilliance in his directing and the camera work from great cinematographers like Gunnar Fischer (who did the photography for this film) and Sven Nykvist. There are quite a few Bergmans I could have chosen for summer: ‘Summer with Monika’ and ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ are both masterpieces. ‘Persona’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’ would also work. But I picked ‘Summer Interlude’ because it’s undeservedly neglected and arguably Bergman’s first great film.
A young ballet dancer, Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) receives a package containing a diary which brings back memories of a summer at her uncle’s house on an island years before and a romance with Hendrik (Birger Malmsten), her first great love. She takes the ferry back there to confront the painful memories which still haunt her. There are themes Bergman would use in later films, most notably Wild Strawberries – returning to places with painful associations, the story told in flashback, youthful mistakes we cannot escape from, the lies of artistic performance and isolation. Summer has rarely been more beautifully captured on film – dazzling light, days by the shimmering water and magnificent scenery. It goes by too quickly and as the season turns to autumn, you have a sense of lost innocence and something irreparably broken in Marie (compare the bright sunshine on the island with the dark, claustrophobic sets of the theatre).
If you associate Bergman with painful psychological confrontations between couples, heavy symbolism or extreme close-ups, you might be surprised at the lightness of touch and freshness of this film. It’s still a very honest story of a love affair that ends tragically but it’s intimate and poetic rather than harrowing.
Like with Summertime, the plot is fairly straightforward; Wendell Armbruster Jr. (Jack Lemmon, always fabulous), a successful businessman travels to the island of Ischia to make arrangements for the return of his father’s body. But he discovers that his father died alongside his long-term mistress whose daughter, Pamela Piggott (beautiful Juliet Mills in probably her finest role) is also making the journey there.
Unlike the frantic pace of Some Like It Hot, this is a romantic comedy where everything unfolds at a leisurely pace. The scenery is absolutely stunning, there’s a musical score that you’ll be humming for days afterwards and a terrific cast. Lemmon and Mills are wonderful together as two older people from completely different backgrounds who find themselves becoming more like their parents the longer they stay on the island. My favourite though is Clive Revill as the hotel manager, a performance so funny and beautifully nuanced that you can scarcely believe he’s not actually Italian. There are many very funny scenes, often with black humour, as well as some poignant ones such as the scene in the morgue which is beautifully lit and also very sensitively played by Juliet Mills. For me, this is yet more proof of Billy Wilder’s greatness – the fact that he could direct some of the funniest films every yet also tackle darker themes, sometimes doing both in the same film. This movie is 140 minutes but it goes by much too quickly. By the end, you really feel you’ve travelled to Ischia yourself and there’s a bittersweet lump in your throat knowing that we can’t come back again next year with Wendell and Pamela.
Everybody knows that it’s the story of a small island community threatened by an enormous great white shark. Don’t be put off though by people sniggering about the fake looking shark, humming the famous theme tune or doing impressions of Roy Scheider’s police chief finally coming to the conclusion that “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” They can sneer all they like as far as I’m concerned because I think this is a truly great film. Nothing beats it for a sense of menace and fear of what lies underneath. Take the early shots of the woman swimming, accompanied by John Williams’ brilliant score. We don’t see the shark as the mechanical one wasn’t working but they’re still truly terrifying. We have no idea where the threat is or what will happen next. Also, the three leads, Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, then unknown actors, are absolutely brilliant together. The studio had wanted Charlton Heston, Sterling Hayden and Jon Voight but thankfully, that didn’t work out as there can only really be one star in this film.
CGI wasn’t around back then so Spielberg and his team did the best with what they had. Sure, today the shark would be more sophisticated but special effects can also look overdone and I’m not convinced it would make the film more any frightening. Jaws stands out today as something rare – a summer blockbuster which also manages to be a great work of art.
Photo by Slim Aarons
Even though it poured with rain here yesterday and is still only 13 degrees, I still feel that summer is just around the corner and with that in mind, I’ve put together some of my favourite summer films and will be posting one a day. No list can be definitive, of course, and there are a few omissions – notably Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ and Rob Reiner’s ‘Stand By Me’ for the simple reason that I haven’t yet seen them. Also, I’ve tried to strike a balance between English speaking films and foreign language ones, although you’ll notice that about a third are French. I hope you’ll find familiar favourites along with some new ones. Now all we need is a decent summer…
- La Piscine (1969)
This was recently remade in English as ‘A Bigger Splash’ by Luca Guadagnino but I don’t really see how you could improve on the original. Alain Delon and Romy Schneider play Jean-Paul and Marianne, a couple whose peaceful holiday at their villa in St. Tropez is interrupted by the arrival of an old flame, Harry (Maurice Ronet) and his English daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin). At the heart of the film is the beautiful swimming pool where jealousy and betrayal between the two couples are played out and the film becomes more sensual and gripping as it moves towards its terrible finale. Quite a few people complain that it’s shallow or much too slow but I feel they miss the point. The characters are beautiful but all flawed and not quite what they seem and it’s the controlled pace that makes it so tense. It’s also incredibly sexy and stylish. This is probably my favourite summer film and one that makes me long for hot days by the pool.