Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Criterion on Hulu: Summer with Monika (Ingmar Bergman, 1953)

I figured I'd start off this column with Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monika, as it's not only a great film, but it represents everything I love about the Criterion Collection in a general sense, and their contract with Hulu specifically. It's a grant, important classic foreign film by a major director that remains unavailable on DVD in the United States, and is presented here in what seems to be a new high-definition transfer. One day, I had little hope of seeing it, and the next day I was actually watching it. Criterion has been putting films on their Hulu Plus page well in advance of their DVD/Blu-Ray release since they embarked on this venture, so I wouldn't be surprised if Monika eventually gets a proper release. But for now, this is really the only way to see it in the U.S.

The film itself is widely misunderstood. Released in the United States in most markets strategically cut to emphasize the film's nudity and sexuality, it has become one of the hallmarks of the mid-1950s erotic foreign film (and the basis for the Seinfeld parody, Rochelle, Rochelle). Sure enough, all of the film's stateside publicity material prominently features Monika's (Harriet Andersson) age and free-spirit sexuality. But watching the film is a whole different experience.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a couple who fall in love at the dawn of adulthood, quit their dead-end jobs, and set out for the wilderness. Like anyone of eighteen or nineteen, they're passionate and infinitely hopeful, and if this section feels naive or a little cliche, there are two reasonable explanations. First, cliches such as these come from a real place, and this was one such film. Second, I've always argued that pure romance is a viable emotion that inevitably feels naive or a little cliche, and I commend filmmakers willing to go there. Plus, it makes it all the more heartbreaking to see what comes after.

See kids, in those days, you had to sit through some tough, raw emotion to see some nudity. Bergman isn't shy about showing the inevitable outcome of a relationship based purely on passion, one that follows the whims of a girl who refuses to work or take any responsibility in her life. In this way, our sympathies are aligned with Monika's lover Harry (Lars Ekborg), who for much of the film takes the kind of passive role many of us have probably fallen into when we suddenly find ourselves in a new relationship with someone much bolder than we are. Harry and Monika's downfall might seem obvious, but we feel all the worse for him because he probably sees it, too. But what sets this apart from being a mere cautionary tale is that Monika's position is not without its sympathetic side - Bergman really shows that there were greater problems before sexual harassment suits than the occasional off-color joke. At work, Monika is grabbed at every turn and nearly raped at one point. Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer film her warehouse workplace as little more than a dungeon. Contrasted with the bright whites of the warm Swedish summer, it's no wonder she so desperately clings to her newfound freedom once a need to survive calls her back home.

In between these two poles, Bergman captures lower-class Swedish life with the kind of color you don't usually see in one of his productions. Monika's neighborhood is presented with the liveliness of an early Fellini or Scorsese film, with boisterous neighbors, crammed apartments, and demanding parents. Again, contrast these compact spaces with the wide-open space of the river she and Harry will later travel on; the freedom seems infinite, and consequences don't exist.

It is a beautiful film on every level - earnest and heartfelt, honest and unrelenting, it captures that horrible period in which we finally discover that it's time to grow up. Some people are automatically up to the task, others need time, but Harry and Monika's story proves a great external expression of the internal struggle all too familiar to someone joining the work force for the first time. Melodramatic? Sure, but it's the kind of melodrama that gets to the cold, hard, wonderful truth. As it's a Bergman/Fischer collaboration (they'd go on to work on such films together as Smiles of a Summer NightWild Strawberries, and The Seventh Seal before Bergman began collaborating with Sven Nykvist), the cinematography is expectedly lush. Fischer was a much more classical cinematographer than Nykvist, and while the latter's work is more dynamic and tends to receive more praise, I adore all of Fischer's work with Bergman.

Criterion gives us a wonderful presentation of that over their Hulu channel. I am in awe of where HD streaming is at the moment, particularly in representing classic films made well before the digital era was ever a consideration. While streaming tends to produce an inconsistent image - shots can run the gamut between fooling even the most hardcore Blu-Ray enthusiast into thinking they're seeing a perfect high-def image to looking about suitable for a DVD - seeing Summer with Monika like this for the first time made for a remarkable experience. Streaming it through the television, I noticed a fine grain structure and a razor-sharp image; there was even some light flickering, long the hallmark of 35mm projection but sometimes found on Blu-Ray, present in certain shots. Most important, there were very few, if any, compression artifacts. I cannot recall any blocking, ghosting, or those smudges you so often get in the darker parts of the image. The grain on the title sequence reads a little bit more like noise - not uncommon on any digital format - but once we get into the film itself, we're treated to a very fine presentation indeed. The monochrome image varies widely between the piercing whites and deep blacks mentioned above, and the transfer kept up perfectly in both instances without letting the whites blow out or the blacks obscure detail. Streaming images often feel a little bit "thin" to me, for lack of a better word, but given the format's parameters, I could hardly ask for better. Sweden has rarely looked so lovely.

As this is exclusive to Criterion's Hulu channel, there are no supplements currently available. Summer with Monika is presented with a clean, original Swedish sound track and English subtitles.

All in all, this is a sterling example of what The Criterion Collection offers through their Hulu channel - a great classic foreign film by an important director, unavailable for many years, now available for a small monthly fee. Highly recommended.

If you want to try Hulu Plus and get your first two weeks free, click here to sign up.

Note: All screencaps are provided through other sources, and are not representative of the streaming quality.

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