The Saddest Shot in the History of Cinema

For many, the most memorable moment from Bergman’s seminal Summer with Monika (1953) is a scene in which the titular Monika turns away from the affair that she is about to embark upon, in order to cast a direct and prolonged stare towards the viewer. For almost 30 seconds, Monika’s expression undergoes a metamorphosis from steely defiance into a haunting vulnerability, rendered all the more devastating for its juxtaposition with the carefree and upbeat music heard simultaneously in the background. In 1958, Jean-Luc Godard infamously declared this moment to be “the saddest shot in the history of cinema”. For Godard, Monika’s expression denotes a sense of self-directed disgust for her “indirectly choosing hell instead of heaven”.

Within this interpretation, the scene could be considered as a microcosm of Monika’s affair: distilling her emotional experience into one shot, as she moves from initial excitement and perhaps crude sexuality towards a sobering realisation of the consequences that her actions will have. Simultaneously however, Monika’s stare contains an almost aggressively self-aware sense of inevitability – a sense, however deplorable her actions might be, that she is powerless to act in any other way because of her inescapable desire to be free. Thus, we are forced to consider whether Monika herself is in fact an active agent, or merely a casualty of a society in which she does not belong.

Manolha Dargis, writing in 2007, casts Monika in the latter category, arguing that her fiercely free-spirited nature is transcendent of a world of ‘domestic banality’, to which she is ill-suited. Rather than inviting the viewer to judge her, Monika’s extra-diegetic gaze is paradoxically defying us to do so – her sense of disconnectedness underscored by the extreme close-up and stark backdrop deliberately framing her in isolation.

In this sense, her turning away from the scene is less of a desperate plea to the viewer and more an impassive expression of her incorrigible desire for freedom. Yet, unavoidably, this expression eventually gives way to a sense of anxiety and reproachfulness, demonstrable in her subtly trembling lips and glassy eyes.

Jacques Mandelbaum, writing for Cahiers du Cinema, argues that this ambiguity arises from the fact that Monika’s devotion to her own ideology involves “denying the freedom of others”, and is therefore inherently selfish. Mandelbaum further speculates that Bergman himself identified with Monika in this respect, and that the shot thus denotes a sense of “shame and horror at himself”.

Framed in this way, the camera’s zooming in upon Monika’s face, and its fixation therein appears to be motivated more by an inquisitive curiosity as opposed to accusation. The unwavering close-up merely denotes an utter fascination with the subject, meaning that any judgment thereof must depend upon the projection of viewers’ own values and sense of morality. From this perspective, though the scene has proven enduringly and unquestionably impactful, “the saddest shot in the history of cinema” appears to be too simplistic a label, diluting somewhat its rich emotional and moral ambiguity. Perhaps, however, in its beautiful simplicity and sensitivity, it would be better described as one of the most emotionally resonant shots in the history of cinema.

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