Summer love on a deserted island isn’t real life. That’s the Gordian knot in Bergman’s 1953 Summer With Monika. This erotic and heartbreaking film tells the story of two adolescents caught in the throes of an idyllic love. It’s a love they both long for, given their troubled and sad early lives. And also an escape from life’s current cruelty and reality; which they can’t ultimately avoid. We all complicate love by what we bring from childhood. Bergman was no different. In his films, he wove an unconscious self-analysis as Barbara Young (2015*) rightly says. So, I think we can easily look at Summer With Monika’s story of Monika and Harry as two warring parts of Bergman himself. And, let’s say we do. What can we learn about how childhood trauma might ruin a chance to let love unfold; with all its truthfulness and imperfections?
Bergman’s Monika & Harry & Problems With Love
Love is tricky. Childhood losses, unreachable mothers, deprivations, criticisms, abuse, too many siblings, a drunk father can produce struggles that make love impossible. And, in one of love’s precarious scenarios, invokes the fantasy of an idyllic “summer love.” A kind of “love” that doesn’t happen only in summer.
Summer love, fantasy love, is about the need for something that seems blissfully enticing; when real love (and its imperfections) never seems enough. Or a trap; forcing you to look elsewhere for a picture of “perfection.” So, you keep moving on, from one temptation to another, never finding what you’re looking for because it doesn’t exist.
Bergman knew both sides of the coin in these complications of love. The two sides we see played out in Monika (Harriet Andersson) and Harry (Lars Ekborg). They both long for love. Both had difficult childhoods. Each reflects a different part of the struggle. Wanting love desperately, Harry is able to stay in reality; Monika runs away.
Bergman’s Infidelities & Summer With Monika
Bergman knew very well about the difficulties of staying with love. He left marriage after marriage and couldn’t be a father to any of his nine children. Always running off to an irresistible affair with someone else. Including Harriet Andersson – Monika, in Summer With Monika – during the making of the film.
Bergman filmed Summer With Monika during his marriage to Gun Hagberg Grut. He’d had an affair with her on and off for years, and then left his long marriage to Ellen Lundstrom and their four children before he married Gun. Bergman and Gun’s baby, Ingmar, Jr., was just born when the filming of Summer With Monika began.
But, Bergman couldn’t resist the sexy and erotic “Monika.” This ended his marriage to Gun. Bergman at 69 reflected on who he’d been:
“I do not recognize the person I was forty years ago … if I felt attacked, I snapped like a frightened dog. I trusted no one, loved no one, missed no one. Obsessed with sexuality that forced me into constant infidelity, I was tormented by desire, fear, anguish, and a guilty conscience. So I was alone and raging.” (Young, p. 47*)
Sounds like Monika, doesn’t it? What is it that makes someone this way? Like Monika, Bergman experienced the early childhood trauma of an absent and unreachable mother. Sex, affairs, a search for an unattainable ideal love is not infrequently the result.
Monika: A Deprived, Needy & Demanding Girl
Monika meets Harry in a pub. She asks him for a match. An 18-year-old combination of childlike, desperate, and erotic desire, she’s looking for something. She asks him if he’s noticed that spring is here, and quickly interjects, “let’s go away and never come back.” This is, of course, an invitation to a stranger, infused with fantasy.
Her life is brutal and hard. Her siblings tease her: “Chubby tubby Nika.” She’s beautiful and erotically enticing – and men at work think nothing of pinching her, touching her breasts, propositioning her, calling her a “floozy,” treating her roughly, sexually accosting her; laughing; making her cry. Life is hard on all levels.
You see, Monika lives in tenement housing. Her family is poor, with too many much younger siblings; three in all; a harshly critical mother and a drunk also a critical dad. Her father also makes her cry. Monika’s mother is busy, haggardly tired, and distracted from any of the attention Monika needs. She must look elsewhere.
One night, after meeting Harry, her dad is drunk; and she confronts him. He calls her a sassy brat, and she yells: “I won’t be a burden to you much longer; drink all you want. I’m not staying here.” No wonder she wants to run away from this reality, to something more idyllic. She packs a suitcase, and leaves, running hysterically to Harry’s house.
She’s deprived and wants more. And, Harry’s lonely and hungry too. They’re a well-matched pair, born out of dissimilar deprivations; but deprivations of love nonetheless.
Harry: A Lonely, Yearning, & Quietly Sad Boy
Harry is a dreamy boy. Slow and lost in fantasy for his own reasons. His mother became sick when he was 5 and died when he was 8. His father withdrew, shut down completely. They sat together, never saying a word.
His sleepy dreaminess is his escape. Harry has never had anyone, except a kindly, well-meaning but brusque aunt; and his absented father; quiet and sickly with stomach ailments (Bergman was often hospitalized for ulcers too). No one was ever there, so Harry retreated into a world somewhere else in his mind.
Like Monika, his work-a-day world is filled with cruelty. He can’t satisfy his bosses, nothing he does is right. They are mad and critical of him, constantly yelling. He apologizes, tries to please. Until, Monika’s rebellious and beguiling fantasy of a summer love fest far away takes hold of him, drawing him in.
“You can kiss me now Harry. I’m crazy about you. There’s no one but you. Only you.” They eat at his beautiful house: “It’s like we’re married,” she says. This is Monika’s hungry fantasy from the start. It’s not manipulative. She’s a needy little girl. She wants permanent love that is “just the two of us,” not intruded upon by other hungry mouths.
They run away, stealing his father ’s boat.
Escape Into Summer Love
On the first morning out at sea on an archipelago off Stockholm’s shores, they’re alone; having escaped work and family woes. Harry sleeps, Monika makes coffee on a camp stove; “playing house.” At least, for now, they happily immerse themselves in love.
Harry, newer at this, is taken in by Monika’s combination of girlish and erotic charms: “We’ve rebelled, Monika.” She knows a lot about rebellion; says to him: “Remember the story we read last night, “Outlaw Lover?” Harry beats his chest. They jump up and down, screaming like kids.
But, soon, we have the first hint of things not so idyllic: “My, I’ve grown tubby.” We remember her siblings teasing: “Chubby, tubby, Nika.” She’s a sexpot, a gum-chewing kid in pigtails. Torn between the needy little girl and an alluring vampire. Harry’s always been lonely. Now he imagines he’s not.
The two are lost in fantasy. Not only of idyllic summer love, but also of the future.
Realities Intrude Into An Idyllic Fantasy
And, then there are three. The chubby tummy is a pregnant one. At first, her resentment of the “kid” is hidden, still in fantasy. But, remember, Monika is sick of all the “brats” fighting, who take everything from her.
And, now a real conflict between reality and fantasy intrudes. Harry playing the part of reality and Monika holding tight to a fantasy she doesn’t want to leave.
“Monika, we have to make something real of our lives. We’ll care for each other. I’ll study, get a job, so we can get married and have a nice house.” Harry, more realistic, wants to give her proper food, go home and look for work. “We’ll always stay together.” His won’t be the loss of his mother in childhood. Not if he can do anything to stop it.
Monika refuses: “I’m not going back. I want the summer to go on just like this. Harry, I don’t know anyone as sweet as you are.” She still clings to fantasy:‘You’ll come home. I’ll have dinner ready. I won’t work. I’ll stay home with the kids. We’ll have nice clothes.” But, really, she doesn’t want any intruders: “Just you and me.”
And here we have the main conflict in their love and in Summer With Monika. Monika can’t share. She can’t be an adult. She’s a greedy kid; greed born out of childhood deprivation and siblings intruding into her desired “twoness” with her mother.
The “Guy” That Raids Their Love Boat
Jealousy, possessiveness, fear, deprivation, greed, begin to interfere with Harry and Monika’s love. All represented in the form of a guy (Monika’s old boyfriend Lelle (John Harryson)) that raids their boat. A guy that lets them know they aren’t alone, it’s not just the two of them; they don’t have “ownership” of a desert island of love.
Not with a baby on the way. And Lelle, the intruder, is the baby, plus all the feelings stirred between Harry and Monika with pregnancy in the way. They’re both babies, so to speak, deprived and lonely kids. Fighting hard to get the love they need. A baby has set fire to their love boat, just as Lelle does. And a lot of feelings seethe underneath.
Harry has a temper but keeps his cool with the demanding and sometimes hysterical Monika. He’s too afraid of losing love; he’ll protect his fear of loneliness at all cost. Monika and Harry almost kill Lelle. And, this is a foreboding of what is already happening to their “blissful love.”
But, for the moment, they’re high on victory and territorial of their two-ness. Yet, realities are realities. They’re literally starving, foraging for mushrooms and what grows wild on an island away from shore. Love can’t feed all hungers.
Harry, comfortingly, tells Monika they can’t go on like this. They must get married, he needs a job to support them. Monika screams like a banshee: “I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to do anything. Harry, why do some people have all the luck while others are miserable?” The opposite of the happy “married” fantasy she had.
Reality Shatters An Idyllic Summer Love
Monika becomes more hysterical, viciously demanding; aggressively accusatory. Nothing satisfies her. Except for the fantasy she’s trying to live and refuses to leave. Perhaps it is born out of hungers she’s had her whole life, but it becomes everything. And we see Monika, thinking only of herself.
Harry, fearful of losing another love, as he lost his mother, tries constantly to appease her. To gently take care of her; get her “proper food,” which includes a real marriage and building a life together.
But, there’s no appeasing Monika. Harry has now become the enemy of her supposed needs. But, the real interloper is reality. Reality, for Monika, ruins an idyllic fantasy of love. And, she takes Harry down with her.
Monika’s hysteria foretells the death of their love. There’s no going back. Although Harry gently says: “We have each other,” (this is what he wants), their summer dream is ending. They look sad as they motor into Stockholm, especially Monika. Harry has “something to work for now,” but Monika’s tensions separate them.
Real Life Is Far From An Idyllic Fantasy
They marry. “Little Monika” is born, or June (a much “prettier name”) is what Monika prefers. An indication of how much self-hate is brewing under her selfish resentments. Monika rejects June. Calls her “the kid.” Hates the baby’s presence. June’s needs get in the way of her own.
The realities of Stockholm, married life, motherhood at 18, Harry’s busyness. send Monika into more and more of an entitled rage. She’s been robbed of her idyllic summer escape. She can’t be a partner. She just wants things for herself.
And, she’ll get them. Unable to see what Harry is actually doing for her and the baby, she staunchly believes that Harry has failed her. He’s stoic. He comforts the crying baby at night. She rages about how Harry deprives her; buys a new suit with the rent money. Is cold to Harry as he goes off on a business trip, trying to create a better life.
Feeling she’s justified in getting more for herself; hating Harry and June (as she deflects into them all her own self-hate), she yells, “You got me pregnant. I’m ugly now.” Monika wants anything that will make her feel wanted again. Just the two of them; yet, focused entirely on her.
The ghosts of Monika’s childhood haunt her. Too many little siblings, being criticized, pushed aside, deprived of the real admiration every child needs, Monika can’t make room for anyone else. Not her husband or her baby. And, this ruins love.
Monika’s Childhood Trauma Ruins Love
Monika is in the thick of old childhood feelings, grievances, and deprivations. She cannot see through the fog they create, and historical resentments take over.
Harry becomes, in her mind, her “too busy” mother, “intentionally” depriving her. Harry “cares only about his studies” (as her mother cared only about other babies and the housework). In competition with her siblings, Monika wants to be the only one. And, so she once again goes after men and sex and that elusive illusion of “love.”
She sleeps with other men in her marital bed. And, when Harry comes home from his business trip early, he sees Monika’s old boyfriend, Lelle, leaving their house. Monika, resentful and bitter and wanting to hurt him even more, tells the distraught and crushed Harry: “I’m was in love.”
Harry, who has tried his best to create a new life, is finally driven to rage. He becomes her father, hitting her. But, unlike her drunk father, Harry cries. Yet, Monika coldly turns her back. Unable to see Harry, his needs or his pain, she puts on her rent-money suit, shuts the door, and leaves him.
In the last scene in Summer With Monika, Harry walks with his baby, alone, prepared to take care of June by himself. He stops and looks at his reflection in a mirror. For a moment, we see a happy smile at what he’s gained. But, just as fast, the sadness of his loss of Monika, of love, of the life he yearned for, takes over.
It’s a current grief co-mixed with the early loss of his mother and the family he couldn’t have then. He, too, must live with the after-effects of his childhood. Yet, Harry doesn’t run from his losses. Embracing reality, he has a chance for a different life.
Bergman’s Monika & Harry: 2 Sides Of The Coin
We see two sides of Bergman in Harry and Monika. Like Harry, the longing for love and a real-life to solve past losses took Bergman into many relationships and marriages, with children. Yet, Bergman too had childhood trauma. His unreachable mother interfered.
He, like Monika, couldn’t accept anything but a fantasy of “twoness.” And, his own self-hate and insecurities, made him run over and over into enticing new sex and illusion.
These opposing desires exist in many of us. And running from our losses makes it impossible to stay with a love that’s real and needed. Yet Bergman helps us to see, and he wants to. Encouraging self-awareness was a goal in making his films:
“Someone who happens to work with a medium such as film … needs to stress all those possibilities that may result from his personal suffering … I should at least expect that it is just as important to many others who live here and now and are struggling with the same problems I do. Inspiring reflection in others is my gain.” (Taschen, p. 127*)
What is it that Bergman helps us reflect on in Summer With Monika?
Love is difficult. Infused, as it is, with childhood trauma and unresolved struggles. Escaping into fantasy from the realities of the past or the imperfections of a current and possible love does not solve the problem.
In fact, facing reality head-on, knowing your losses and mourning them, can help you move ahead and change your life. Harry can do this. But, Monika can’t. Living with old grievances, acting them out, running away continually to fantasy and sex; pursuing an illusion of idyllic love, Monika is doomed to unhappiness.
* Taschen Books, The Ingmar Bergman Archives, p. 127.
*Young, B. (2015). The Persona Of Ingmar Bergman: Conquering Demons Through Film, Rowman & Littlefield, p. 47.