The 1960s were a time of change, not just politically and socially but also cinematically. Younger filmmakers had grown tired of the big and extravagant films that were produced in Hollywood. This was true not just for American filmmakers, but everywhere else around the world as well. Filmmakers in France, Japan, Britain, Italy and Spain were rebelling against the conformity of past cinema and demanded changes. And yes, even in nice and happy Sweden filmmakers rebelled. The best example of this is probably Bo Widerberg, whom I have already discussed at great length. Another such person was Swedish actress Mai Zetterling. She became an actress at the Royal Dramatic Theatre (the most prestigious acting institution in Sweden) in Stockholm at the age of 17, and made her screen debut in the Ingmar Bergman-scripted Torment in 1944 just two years later. She then began working in British cinema and television throughout the forties and fifties, but she felt unfulfilled and started making documentary films for the BBC. Then she directed the short film The War Game in 1962 that won top prizes at Venice, and thanks to this and a soap commercial, she was able to direct her first feature film. She chose Agnes von Krusenstjerna’s controversial and provocative novel series called the Miss von Pahlen series, and combined many elements from all the novels into the film Loving Couples (Älskande par) from 1964.
Young Couples begins sometime during World War I. We meet three women at a birthing centre, Harriet Andersson’s Agda, Gunnel Lindblom’s Adèle and Gio Petré’s Angela, all of whom are there expecting (surprise surprise). Through elaborate flashbacks we see each of the character’s childhoods and their sexual maturity and their encounters with a sexist and patriarchal society. Angela grows to become a lesbian and falls in love with the older woman Petra. Adèle grows up feeling neglected and abandoned by men and grows to hate them, constantly saying “men will always disappoint you.” Agda grows up cheerful and optimistic, yet taken advantage of by several men, including almost getting molested by an older man as a child. These flashbacks collide as the three women meet at a Midsommar celebration in 1914 and the three women become pregnant.
I’ve seen many people comment that the film is like an Ingmar Bergman film, and in some aspects it is, but in my opinion that is a superficial observation. It’s true that the dialogue is somewhat Bergmanesque and the film features many of his favorite actors (including Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck, and given a large section of the film centers around a midsommar celebration it gave me Smiles of a Summer Night flashbacks). The film is also lensed by the great Bergman-collaborator Sven Nykvist, who gives the black-and-white film a crisp look. And yes, the scenario may be similar, but would Bergman make a film like Loving Couples? I think not. Although Bergman was certainly daring in his own right, Zetterling’s debut seems more radical to me because of its narrative structure and it’s exploration of sexual hypocrisy in a male-dominated society. There are also many wonderful lines of dialogue in the film that serves as a form of middle finger to the patriarchy. My favorite is when a woman asks if they must discuss the horrors of the world. “Men must” a man replies. Then one of our female characters go “that’s usually how they start.” SNAP!
The film caused much controversy at Cannes in 1964 due to its frank and non-judgemental depiction of homosexuality, nudity childbirth. The poster, depicting numerous silhouetted men and women in the nude, was taken down for it’s “obscenity”, even though you don’t actually see anything critical (one penis or two perhaps but nothing harmful). One French film critic said that the entire Swedish film nation should be banned. This speaks, I think, to Zetterling’s bravery as a storyteller and someone not afraid to push the envelope, much like Agnes von Krusenstjerna in her day. So no, she’s not a copy of Bergman or Bunuel or anyone else, she’s her own voice with her own perspective on feminism, society and sexuality.
Maybe I’m just upset that because there are some similarities, a female director’s work is automatically compared to the work of a male director and in many cases, deemed inferior out of a strict formality. I know this upset Zetterling as well, since many of the male critics compared it to Bergman, and many of them highlighted the works of Nykvist and editor Paul Davies over her directing and writing. Sure, it was the times but that doesn’t excuse this kind of behavior. The male critics were none too pleased with Zetterling’s later films, and after the disastrous critical and commercial failure of her film The Girls (considered by many her masterpiece), she couldn’t find any financial support for future films in Sweden, and years would pass between films (although she remained active making television documentaries and plays). It’s just a real shame that whenever we get a radical filmmaker in Sweden, they’re pushed aside by the safe and commercial. This happened to Bo Widerberg in the 1980s, and this happened to Mai Zetterling in the 1960s. But your films live on Mai, and hopefully they will be rediscovered by a new generation of filmmakers in our fair country.
Mai Zetterling (1925-1994)