As established in my review for her directorial debut Loving Couples from back in April, Mai Zetterling was not afraid to shake things up or upset the establishment and desired to make films that directly dealt with feminism, sexuality and the patriarchy. But this came with a price. Despite the controversy and supposed international success of Loving Couples, Zetterling struggled to get financing from the newly founded Swedish Film Institute, whose job it was to see to the continued development of artistic Swedish cinema in the wake of the auteur wave across Europe and indeed the world. Her films were deemed too unworthy, confrontational and derivative to be deemed “artistic” and therefore worthy of state funding (take a wild guess if Bergman had the same issues around the same time). She turned to the now defunct Sandrews and continued to receive funding for additional films. This escalating tension would result in her most famous, most controversial and unfortunately perhaps her last major film at least for a very long time. But it also happens to be her best and I will go into great detail to explain why that is.
The story of The Girls (Flickorna) is somewhat hard to explain but I will try my best. Basically, it’s about a troupe of Dramaten actors who tour Sweden to perform a production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Much like Loving Couples, the film focuses on three female leads, returning actors Harriet Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom, with the third lead being played by Bibi Andersson. Harriet is having an affair with an older and married man, Gunnel is more or less a frustrated housewife and Bibi constantly argues with her unfaithful husband, played by Erland Josephson. The film interweaves performances of the play with the private lives of all three of these characters throughout it’s running time alongside fantasy or even dream sequences to the point where the line between fiction and reality becomes increasingly hard to distinguish.
One of the most important scenes in the film involves Bibi Andersson’s character speaking directly to the audience after a well-received performance and starts to name-call and criticize and stops short of giving a political speech. The audience responds numbly to this until her co-star Gunnar Björnstrand “saves” the situation by throwing it off as a minor incident. Followed quickly is a scene where Bibi is asked about her views by a number of male reporters, who question the validity of her “naive” political views. The film continues to escalate in its anger at the patriarchy throughout the film and it escalates in a number of scenes where once again, the line between reality and fiction is blended to the point of being invisible. One such scene is where the female ensemble is sitting in a movie theatre and throwing their popcorn and beverages on the screen as images of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini flash across the screen. I think the best way to describe the films politics in this sense would be “punk feminism.”
But don’t think this will be a dull and moralizing tale, because oh no this film is a pure delight to watch. Despite not being an outright comedy itself, it projects so much joy through it’s energetic filmmaking and I guarantee if this had been made by a man it would be hailed internationally as a classic and he would’ve been guaranteed funding for his next project. The script by Zetterling and her then-husband David Hughes is extremely witty and whilst never being subtle in it’s themes it’s all delivered in such a way you will just have a huge grin on your face when it’s over.
Upon its theatrical release in Sweden it was virtually panned everywhere, albeit by only male film critics. Maybe it’s because the films feminist message was so strong that the male patriarchy felt somewhat challenged and offended by it and therefore deried it. Thus it was pulled from theaters after a mere three week run and quickly vanished into obscurity, with Zetterling’s era as one of Sweden’s leading filmmakers killed stone dead. Luckily however, the film has reemerged and rightfully been reevaluated as a masterpiece of Swedish and feminist cinema. I choose to sum up this column by quoting perhaps the films only defender upon initial release, feminist/philosopher Simone de Beauvoir: “Ironic and comic, the film moves us by the beauty of its landscapes, its poetry and above all its sublte tenderness.”