Smiles of a Summer’s Night and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy

Literary and musical connections can be rather complicated. First, we have Mozart’s well-known “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” often translated (literally but inaccurately) as “A Little Night Music.” Nachtmusik actually means “serenade,” but the literal translation has become even more well-known as a result of Stephen Sondheim’s musical by that name, a musical that I reviewed four months ago; I observed in that review that Sondheim based his musical (very closely) on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, which I was therefore determined to see. I have now done so, but along the way I learned that Woody Allen’s film, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, was based in part on the Bergman film as well — though Allen also based it on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as you can guess from his title. So I had to watch Allen’s film as well.

Confused yet?

Maybe a chronology would help:

Shakespeare 1597
Mozart 1787
Bergman 1955
Sondheim 1973
Allen 1982

There — did that help?

No, I didn’t think so.

Anyhow, after seeing the Sondheim musical, Barbara and I were impelled to watch the Bergman and Allen movies (being already familiar with the Shakespeare and the Mozart, to round out the four-century list). We combined the two into one weekend, since a common theme in the Bergman, Sondheim, and Allen works is “a weekend in the country,” which appears directly as the title of one of Sondheim’s earworm songs in his musical version. The first thing that struck me is how closely Sondheim hewed to Bergman’s movie — much more closely than is typical in a “based on” situation. Character names, plot, setting, etc., are all preserved. Of course there are differences, as there always are in a musical version of a straight play, but the similarities are really striking. This may seem odd, but keep in mind that Smiles of a Summer Night is very early Bergman; it’s mostly a comedy, without Bergman’s usual bleakness. Bergman, Sondheim, and Allen are an odd trio, but it actually works.

In keeping with the first two, Allen sites his story in the very early 20th Century, so don’t expect Annie Hall or Manhattan, even though this film was written only a little later than those two. As in many of his works, Allen plays one of the characters, although this time he’s not really playing himself. Unlike Sondheim, he strays from Bergman’s story in many ways, such as the number of couples who interact in their “weekend in the country.” The injection of strains of A Midsummer Night’s Dream of course complicates the connections, to the point where you might conclude that Allen was merely inspired by Bergman rather than basing his story on Bergman’s movie. The result is one of Allen’s lighter films, but it’s still definitely worth watching. And do watch it along with the Bergman and the Sondheim.

Categories: Books, Movies & (occasionally) TV