Summer Interlude (1951) is often acclaimed as the best of Bergman's early features. And indeed, there are stretches here that suggest that the film does deserve to stand alongside the glories of later years. Not until Fanny and Alexander over three decades later would Bergman evoke the naivety of youth in quite so enchanting a manner. With Interlude, the director focuses his attention upon sexuality and, more specifically, the increasing sexual awareness that's integral to the adolescent experience. To romanticize his concerns, Bergman conjures up a noteworthy brand of visual lyricism, defined by its dependence upon the natural world. Benefited heavily by Gunnar Fischer's ability to capture so many resplendent moments on film, the director draws a scintillating - if somewhat simplistic - parallel between one's sexual awakening and nature in full bloom.
Bergman clearly has his finger on the pulse when it comes to imagery, but with the film's other elements he stumbles considerably. His frank, penetrating dialogue always has the potential to be read as overbearing and heavy-handed, and with the benefit of hindsight, Interlude verges dangerously close to self-parody. Its characters espouse lines that will sound familiar to anyone with Bergman's work - "Is there no meaning to life?", "Why has God forsaken me?" etc. - but the artistry of the director's later films often allow for such gloomy statements to be organically born from his mise-en-scène. After appearing so concerned with the natural, Bergman's dialogue here seems anything but. At one stage Marie, the film's lead, stares at her uncle's hands and randomly announces: "I stand here looking at your hands... they're beautiful, yet somehow ugly." The viewer can't help but laugh. Bergman in 1951 is a visibly accomplished director, but not one that can yet iron out the flaws and contrivances of his scripts with an assured hand. (Note the scene where he resorts to using a distinctly unterrifying owl's hoot to ratchet up the tension.) Without the assistance of the idyllic summer scenes, his film grinds to a tedium-inducing halt by the time of its finale.
But despite his own attempts to sabotage his work during its conclusion, Bergman struggles to dispel the memories of what preceded it. His captivating portrait of young love may seem a little excessive at stages, but it's somehow appropriate considering how so much of it is underscored by an intensely mournful perspective. Moreover, the director's ambition often makes for fascinating viewing: consider the sprightly morbidity of a bizarre animated sequence! Or revel in an early template for THAT scene, where an eccentric aunt plays a game of chess with a Priest who has the nerve to comment: "I feel as if I'm sitting next to Death himself!" For the Bergman enthusiast, it's a privilege to witness the master experimenting with such familiar ideas. The role of performance in this narrative, and the preoccupation with theatre and the internal worlds of its artists, surely plays into this. (As a sidenote, the film features a couple of absolutely ravishing ballet sequences that augment these concerns.) Meanwhile, his gentle allusions towards sex and desire assist the film in its refreshingly modern approach to matters of the heart (not to mention other organs). There's even the suggestion of Bergman's first gay coupling in a pair of old, gossiping theatre clerks. Summer Interlude may be too convoluted to join the ranks of his greatest achievements, but there's enough creativity here to ensure that it stands the test of time on its own merits.