Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika

Central Question: Why is it so hard to be bored?

Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika

Jeremy Philip Galen
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The somewhat quaint 1953 Ingmar Bergman film Summer with Monika tells the story of Monika, a young, lubricious working-class girl in Stockholm who falls in love with Harry, a winsome lower-middle-class loafer. On their first date they go to the movies, after which Monika verbalizes an impatience with her own life and a deep envy of people she imagines have everything they want. Soon they flee the city on Harry’s father’s boat and tool around the rocky shores of the archipelago, but, after a censor-baiting nude scene and some bohemian pluckiness, the summer’s aimless love affair spirals down. Monika is hungry, unhappy, and very likely pregnant; once again she despairs that others have easier lives than hers. Eventually, she and Harry must return to the city where they don’t quite belong, and, though the arrival of their child offers them brief happiness together, Monika’s boredom and escapism, her need for adventure and entertainment, recrudesce like an illness.

At the heart of boredom is a contradiction: it could be a luxurious, desirable state of being—for it presupposes relief from obligation, a total respite from the pressure of economic survival or social acceptance or self-improvement—and yet it is a state we seem endlessly interested in avoiding. Monika’s tale, set in simpler times, warns us of just how perilous the search for continuous excitement can be. But is this a lesson we ever really learn?

Entertainment is evidently one of our most efficient ways of combating boredom; still, like Monika, we are eminently capable of growing tired of that which once thrilled us. As new media emerge and begin to dominate our lives, they start to make older forms seem increasingly impoverished. At a certain point, compared with the fashionable new formula for getting data to the brain, old media, which require effort to enjoy, come to feel like a chore. They get boring.

Or do they? There can be pleasure in the chore, in the experience of having to work for that data, precisely because it leaves room for the work of the imagination. Take black-and-white films—such as Summer with Monika—which have clearly been made to seem impoverished by several generations of visual media with ever-higher fidelity. Whether the lack of color is a technical constraint or a stylistic choice, such films require a creative investment: regardless of plot, of moral or aesthetic content, the viewer can never be completely passive. He must supply not just an array of colors but a worldly authenticity as well, the effort needed to bring the represented world across the finish line. The effort needed, in a sense, to create the universe before his eyes.

Where there is work to do there is a risk that it won’t get done, and thus the brutality of boredom has at least something to do with the self-perpetuating experience of laziness. It certainly does for Monika—the less effort she is willing to invest in a given circumstance, the more bored she becomes, and the more intense her need to escape—and it might hold true for the rest of us in our own relationship to media. The less work we do, the less we’re capable of. But sometimes what we perceive as boring actually contains a cure.                                                       

—Jeremy Philip Galen

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