#247. Summer with Monika (1953)

[Editor’s Note from the Future: I wrote this almost a year ago, while I was still seeing my ex, and I think it’s a decent enough piece as it is, so I’m not gonna change it to reflect how my attitudes have changed about certain things. Gonna just pop in now and then to clarify something or comment on it.]

The ladyfriend doesn’t like movies that much, which is both a blessing and a curse in that (1) after a day of watching two or three movies and then writing essays about those movies I don’t have to talk about them anymore and but (2) a curse in that it would be nice to have some company for these marathons once in a while, but, anyway, she was coming out of my room the other morning while I was watching Umberto D. and she sat with me and started doing what I’ve found lots of girls like to do when watching old movies, which is to fawn over the beauty of actresses who are dead. She was citing the fact that the young maid at Umberto’s apartment, played by Maria-Pia Casilo, didn’t appear to be wearing much makeup, and that her outfit was very modest, and she was loving how, despite this, we could tell from the way the camera approached and lingered on her that it found her beautiful, and the movie was telling us she was beautiful, unlike a Hollywood film where the focus would soften and her face would be rendered immaculate under so much powder and paint, her hair sprayed until it defied gravity.

            It was an uncharacteristically engaged observation for her to’ve made about one of these old movies. Her idea stayed with me.

A day later, when I was sitting with my cousin watching Summer with Monika, I started thinking of it again because of how erotic the movie is—although that erotic-ness also feels like an older person’s celebration of youth’s beauty—and I was thinking that if Umberto D. gives us a humble presentation of a comfortably sexual woman (there’s a wonderfull moment, in Umberto, where the pregnant maid brings him to the window and points down at two young men walking across the street. She tells him one is from Florence and one is from Nice. When Umberto asks which is the father of her child, she says, in a bemused way, that she isn’t sure—which I found weirdly sexy in the subtlest way) then Summer with Monika is practically a shrine to the latter movie’s subtle sexuality. At first.

There’s a sexuality about the movie that I also don’t think I would have appreciated when I was a teenager and in a relationship very much like the one being depicted here: hypersexual and future-looking and romantic.

            It gets a little more complicated as their romance progresses but, in the second act, when the two young lovers have bailed on their jobs and societal responsibilities in order to go live on a small island by themselves, to drink coffee and frolick and fuck, the standoffish camera shows us that, apart from wearing either very little makeup or none at all, the eponymous Monika’s underarms are unshaven. She steps away from her romantic cuddle with her boyfriend Henry to wash herself.

Hers are not the first breasts to appear on the List (I think that honor goes to Daybreak), but hers are the first pair of shoulders to be shot so lovingly. So intimately. I’ve always been kinda puzzled by film critics who talk about how a camera can be in love with a subject, and frame it so tenderly (I remember reading lots of this in respect to Shanghai Express, and Josef von Sternberg’s general approach to Marlene Dietrich), but director Ingmar Bergman is helping me to understand it.

            Rita Hayworth and Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers are adored by the camera, and practically painted on the screen under a specific treatment of makeup and spotlight and drugs, but the way that Casilo was framed in Umberto D. and the way that Monika (Harriet Andersson) are framed feels more intimate, more appreciative, because it looks captured rather than arranged.

            Is Monika in better shape than probably most girls her age? Sure. So her shirtlessness cuts a more star-making figure—but still. She lets her bangs down, her hair frizzy from the salt and sun, her clothes get rumpled and dirty and hang off of her, reveal her. While lying under the sun with Harry (Lars Ekborg) she gets up, strips out of her shorts and underwear, and steps over his face so that, looking up, he sees everything between her legs. She proceeds to run naked toward the water.

            The notes I took during this second act, where she and Harry are alone on their Edenic island, read like something out of Henry Miller. The rest of it is me musing about getting older. Summer with Monika is a disturbing bildungsroman that starts off romantic, beautiful, almost hypnotic by account of its lead characters’ beauty and their escape from society. A heavyhanded Biblical allusion has Monika growing tired of the mushrooms they eat day after day and insisting that they leave their encampment (is that what it’s called?) to steal apples (ahem) from somebody’s property.

            Monika is caught in the process and, instead of apples, steals a full roast before running away from the private property, hopping onto Harry’s boat, and disappearing with him. She’s pregnant, and so they return to civilization shortly thereafter, where Harry is forced by his responsibilities to get a job at a plant, and to study to become an engineer, while Monika, a bit like Nabokov’s Lolita, wants to live a hedonistic life, wants to be looked at and worshipped and treated to things. So she gives birth to their child but, after that, becomes a chainsmoking, bed-dwelling, adulterous monster, neglecting her child, forsaking any kind of responsibility, blowing their rent money on a new suit for herself.

            By the end of the movie it seems we’re just over a year removed from the moment our heroes met but it seems like way longer. Harry has matured completely. He goes from hating his job in the beginning, flaking and showing up late and breaking materials, to suddenly becoming an attentive father, a diligent worker, a serious student.

            Monika, meanwhile, goes on with the selfish behavior that, in the first act, doesn’t seem like a big deal. She’s a teenager and she’s behaving like one. But now, just a year later, the fact that she’s behaving the exact same way while married with a child makes her behavior seem completely different.

            And that’s the stuff I was mostly riffing about in my notes because it’s the kinda thing I’ve seen among my own peers.

I’m looking at the movie and thinking about how much I would have seen myself and my high school sweetheart in the movie, had I watched it at 18, but I’m also thinking that I wouldn’t have realized how obsessed the movie is with Monika’s body. Like here, they’re watching some people do some shit, but Monika’s butt is clearly the focus. As a teenager, though, I’d have been more compelled by the romance, the relatability, and would have just been following the story.

Handfulla people from my graduating class have kids now and twice that number are married or engaged. Many of them have high-paying jobs and a couple of them are public figures wielding varying degrees of power and influence in the public sector, the private, and at the same time there are just as many who’ve fallen apart (it seems) or who’ve at the very least succumbed to fates way less appealing than what they’d mapped for themselves back in high school. [Question, though: is it that their lives are less appealing than what they’d mapped out, or just a perfect fulfillment of the life they wanted, personally, and that I just don’t see the allure of?]

They’re working retail or hospitality and they live for their days off, during which they go on the boat, or spend the whole day at a bar, or they go clubbing or get fucked up at a music festival. And frankly I’m at odds as to how I feel about it. I’m at odds about the fact that I even want to feel anything about what’s become of other people’s situations—cuz it’s not my life. So here’s a friend of mine who’s living on his own, kinda just barely scraping by, who posts pictures on social media of the blunts they’re rolling, or the shots they’re about to take, or how good they look on their way to the club. They never talk about the future. (What a difference a year makes. I remember exactly who I was talking about and how I was feeling about it, trying to see some kind of truth about where I stood in relation to that person, and now I honestly don’t care at all, no judgment, and I’d be happy to get a drink with them. Happy to get a drink with just about anyone.)

            Here I am, on the other hand, working toward some kind of future professional thing—but you could accuse me of a similar kind of aimlessness cuz there’s no guarantee that completing Thousand Movie Project will yield any kind of success, nor can I really say that I’m contributing anything to society with these essays.

            Then I’ve also got good friends who work 40- or 50-hour weeks, they earn a good comfortable living, and they’re coasting on that, sometimes enjoying their work and sometimes not, just being adults in the world who do their job and take their pleasures and try not to cause any trouble or demand too much of anyone. Isn’t that a good existence? So mundane and safe and routine—couldn’t you argue that it’s inferior to the life of the person who’s scraping by with a mediocre earning from a day job and then going out and living it up on the town whenever they get a day off? They’re socializing and getting laid and drinking and partying. (Reallly, how is it possible that in the space of like ten months I honestly don’t care about any of this?)

            This is kind of a black hole of thought for somebody like me, I know it’s not gonna go anywhere and it’s only gonna prompt me to turn cynical and introspective during my next three or four showers and every long drive, but it’s interesting and I indulge it on a regular basis.

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