By Anders Åberg.
[This review of the Criterion editionof Vilgot Sjöman’s films I Am Curious – Yellow and I Am Curious – Blue was originally published in Film International 5, vol. 1, no. 5, 2003. We now republish it online in memory of actress Lena Nyman, who passed away on February 4, 2011, age 66.]
I Am Curious – Yellow starts in an elevator. Director Vilgot and starlet Lena are stealing a kiss on their way up to the offices of the production company Sandrew. She stars in his film (in production) about the young and curious girl Lena. In the film within the film, Lena interviews people in the streets of Stockholm together with her friend Ulla. The question “Does Sweden have a class system?” is asked over and over, finally to the Prime Minister to be, Olof Palme. At intervals the framing story intervenes. Vilgot is sulking, jealous of Lena’s flirting. Ensuing interviews treat the military system and the issue of pacifism. Fantasy sequences depict the transformation of the Swedish military forces into an organisation practicing non-violent resistance. Lena and her friends form “Nyman’s institute” in her bedroom at her father’s flat. It is a centre for research and protest against practices such as tourism in Franco’s Spain and oppression in the Soviet Union. Lena meets Börje. They immediately start a relationship and make love. Lena later finds out that Börje is married and goes away on a retreat in the countryside. Börje finds her there, they make love and fight, and in a dream sequence Lena shoots and castrates him. She returns to the city. Lena and Börje meet at his place of work – he is a car salesman. They fight again and Lena tells him she has scabies. Director Vilgot breaks the action and castigates the actors for their poor performances. At home Lena breaks down and tears her “institute” apart. In the penultimate scene, Lena and Börje undergoes the painful treatment for scabies. Vilgot seems to enjoy the discomfort of the actors. Finally, in the framing story, Lena visits Vilgot in his office. She returns the key to his apartment and leaves. Börje waits outside, and they kiss passionately in the descending elevator.
I Am Curious – Blue starts, again, in the framing story. Vilgot is testing girls for one of the parts in the film. Lena, in the film within the film, takes part in a sex education class for girls. Börje is tested for the part as Börje, lover and car salesman. Paradoxically, defamatory letters to Lena, the real life actress, are inserted. The authors call her a “whore”, referring, one must assume, to the explicit scenes in I Am Curious – Yellow. Interviews by Lena and Ulla pick up the theme of the class system. These are followed by interviews about peoples views on the church and religion. Lena runs into her mentor cum lover Hasse and his wife, and follows them to their home. In a dreamy sequence Hasse and Lena try to make love in the tower at the Gröna Lund amusement park, but he is impotent. Director Vilgot breaks the action and criticizes the male actor for making Hasse such a wimp. At the fashionable Cecil’s Bar the film team and Lena meet Börje in the framing story. Lena and Börje make love. In the film within the film, Lena leaves the city to find her estranged mother, but ends up at a sermon in a Pentecostal Revivalist Church. She interviews a young Pentecostal about his views on sexuality. She presses on to the small town of Strömsund where she meets a prison doctor to discuss conditions in Swedish penal institutions. Lena’s friend Sonja, a beautiful single mother, tells her story. After surreptitiously watching two women making love, Lena returns to the city and to Hasse. The scabies is discovered, and once again we return to the scene from Yellow, where Lena tells Börje about the scabies. They go to the hospital for treatment. When Lena and Börje walk away from the hospital, director Vilgot calls for a re-take. At this moment, Lena’s mother appears, and Lena starts walking out of the set towards her, glowing with happiness.
One eye, her right, in extreme close-up. She watches a harebell, sunbeams refract in beads of dew on the silken flower-cup. Lena sits in a meadow, dressed in a wrap-around Indian skirt, breasts bare. She yawns. “6.15: meditation” appears in the lower end of the screen.
The following sequence takes us through a day on Lenas retreat in the desolate yet beautiful rural landscape. She drinks fresh water from a brook for breakfast and reflects on the wisdom of Martin Luther King before a pacifist house altar – a broken rifle on a chair, King’s picture leaning against it. Her meals are Spartan, three peas for lunch and a carrot for dinner, the latter devoured in an almost obscene frenzy. The day ends in bed, where Lena devotes herself to “sexual theory”, leafing through an illustrated lover’s guide in fascinated disbelief. On the soundtrack: Bengt Ernryds music, starting in the manner of a Swedish folk-song, moving into the musical vocabulary of cool jazz as we go along.
This is a brilliant sequence. It is beautiful and profound, yet funny; Nyman delivers excellent pantomimic comedy acting. It is ironic, but avoids the coldness often present in that mode. It is playful, yet perfectly controlled. There are quite a few gems like this in Vilgot Sjömans diptych I Am Curious – Yellow/I Am Curious – Blue.
The Curious films have certainly made their mark. Yellow caused a virtually world wide stir when it was released internationally. It was debated, banned, boycotted, cut to pieces and reassembled in Tokyo, Berlin, Montevideo and Cleveland, Ohio. It was seized by United States customs on the grounds of obscenity upon its arrival in New York in the hands of the controversial publisher Barney Rosset, head of Grove Press, but when it was declared not obscene by the Court of Appeals it changed the path of film history. Moreover, it is a fair guess that it is the most widely seen Swedish film ever made. It is said to have grossed over $ 20,000,000 in the U. S. alone, and it held its position as the top grossing foreign film in that country into the 1990s. Why the fuss?
Yellow showed a man’s penis in sexual situations. It was not erect, but it was there. Censors, champions of decency, and legislators all over the world felt that the film crossed a line, and there was no telling where we were going from there. And they were right. Attorney Edward de Grazia defended the film on its first trial in New York. In De Grazia’s and Roger K. Newman’s book Banned Films (1982) he points to the fact that the decision in the Court of Appeals and the successful distribution of Yellow were crucial for changing the legal practice governed by the so called obscenity laws in the U. S.
In terms of film history, Yellow is without a doubt a significant film, one of those watershed movies, similar in kind (but obviously not in scope) to Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) and Rossellinis Roma, città aperta (1945). But where Porter pointed in the direction of the Western and Rossellini spearheaded neo-realism, Sjöman’s film paved the way for hardcore pornography. This undisputable fact is ironic, since Sjöman’s intentions were manifestly anti-pornographic. In the published diary that narrates the making of Yellow and Blue, he defines pornography in terms of voyeurism, and argues that what traditionally make scenes of lovemaking in the cinema pornographic are the veils, the sheets, the slow dissolves, the whole machinery of titillation and innuendo. The naked fact could not and would not be pornography. This is the theory behind the practice in the diptych, and the films bear this out. Many reviewers, along with judges and witnesses in the U. S. trials, actually criticized Yellow for being bad pornography. Lena was lumpy and awkward, Börje was limp, and Sjöman – the pornographer – obviously did not know what he was doing. But what he tried to do was to transcend voyeuristic fantasy and reach the emotional and physical facts of love in all their ordinariness – despite intercourse in trees and outside the royal palace, not to mention a tenuous line of demarcation between different layers of reality in the fictional world of the films. And he did achieve this through intimate camera work and through the occasionally marvellous acting of Nyman and Ahlstedt.
Yellow and Blue are crucial films also in the context of Sjöman’s work as an auteur in the European art cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. He was a renowned novelist in Sweden already in the late 1940s and Ingmar Bergman’s protégé. From scriptwriting and a book on the making of Bergman’s Winter Light (1963), Sjöman went on to direct his first film, The Mistress (1962), shot after Winter Light, but released the year before. That film, as well as the other three he released before Yellow, was firmly in the vein, even the jargon, of directors like Bergman and Antonioni, visually as well as thematically. The diptych was an attempt to break away from that, and especially from the “father figure” Bergman.
Sjöman, much inspired by Jean Rouch’s work, wanted to improvise, to use cinema vérité techniques, and to make a film that would matter politically, a portrait of contemporary Sweden, hence the Yellow and Blue, the colours of the Swedish flag. In this he was a pioneer, at least in Scandinavia, of the politically “conscious” filmmaking in a documentary-like style that became a major current in the late 1960s and early 1970s, blending politics, sexuality and existentialism (cf. Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, 1969, and the work of Dusan Makavejev).
Crucial, important, a watershed, pioneering: definitely the stuff that screening lists in university courses in Film Studies are made of. The Curious films are required viewing for any historically minded film buff or scholar. The Criterion Collection release is a true cultural achievement, since the films have been available only in scratched copies and a few highly dubious video releases. But are they any good? And were they ever?
The narrative structure of the films is complex to the point of incoherence. This has a lot to do with the Curious films’ production history. Sjöman and his team improvised a lot, very much making up the story as they went along. The initial concept of structure was rather in terms of contemporary themes to be broached: sexuality, the Swedish class system, the lack of true radicalism in the complacent Social Democratic establishment, religion and the church, and so on. At the editing table the structural problems were overwhelming. The film simply would not cohere without the deletion of some of the themes dear to Sjöman. At this point he decided to split the film in two, a bit in the spirit of Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet. Rather than telling the same events from different points of view, the Curious films are meant to tell parts of the same chain of events, starting and ending in the elevator in Yellow. The whole chain of events is, however, difficult – if not impossible – to construct from evidence within the films. The relationship between them remains vague to the viewer even when watching them one after another.
One of Sjöman’s favourite films at the time was Fellini’s 8½ (1963), which inspired the film within a film structure as well as the fleeting states of dream or fantasy that appear and disappear without clear signifiers of subjectivity. This kind of mind-screen narration, typical of its day, makes it quite difficult at times to separate frame story, film within the film, dream, and, also, the “real” (in the mode of documentary, particularly in the interviews), especially since most of the dramatis personae bear the same names – in all levels of narration – as the real life actors playing them.
The original Swedish audience was made aware of this structure and some of the artistic reasoning behind it through publicity material and through Sjöman’s published diary from the making of the films. This diary, in turn, pushes the films’ doubling and mirroring to the point of narrative mise-en-abime. It reads as another layer in the story, phenomenally external to the films, but still an important part of them, telling the “truth” about a fiction claiming to unveil the true nature of contemporary Swedish society. It is, so to speak, another framing story. Sjöman seems hell bent on drawing up boundaries and blurring them, frustrating the viewer’s expectations of narrative coherence and of the unity of fictional characters (not to mention of the realness of real people playing them).
Since the structure is kaleidoscopic, playful, loose, almost clumsy, this could be (and has been) interpreted as a fairly childish and pointless game of hide and seek, Sjöman peeking at his audience and saying (we imagine) “Now you see me! Now you don’t!” His mock “self-portrait” in the films smacks of caricature and irony.
If one takes a closer look at this apparently loose structure, however, it starts to crystallize. Mirroring, parallels, contrasts, splitting and fusion are the general principles of the whole project (films and diary) – to the point of obsession. Lena is constantly positioned as the curious child subjected to father figures (Vilgot, Rune, Hasse), some of them also her lovers. At the same time she is linked to Sjöman as his double (or proxy) through machineries of vision (Lena’s glasses, the director’s camera), as well as through details in her fictional life that mirror the life of Sjöman (the real life director): the drunken father, the sentiments about the Spanish Civil War. There is also a subtle but insistent intertextual (or autotextual) relationship between the Curious films and Sjöman’s earlier work. Lena’s longing for her mother, for example, mirrors the longings of the young male protagonist in Sjömans first novel, Lektorn (The Senior Master) (1948).
From this point of view, the films are very structured indeed, and they depict a subject (“Lena”/”Vilgot”) leaving a state of innocence after the shattering experience of facing the Other, especially in terms of sexuality, and masochistically punishing itself for not being able to handle this experience. The climactic scene (in both films) shows Vilgot’s pleasurable gaze on Lena/”himself” in pain and humiliation in the hospital (she is there on account of her sins, right?). If this sounds Freudian, one has to bear in mind that Sjöman is very Freudian in his outlook and themes. This is even made into a point of self-parody in Blue. When the film team is building the set of “Nyman’s institute” one of the decorators chooses between two pictures before an empty picture frame. He asks: “Hey, Lena, do you want Marx or Freud in the frame?” After some thought she says: “Neither, I want Franco”.
This clash between a whimsical and uneven surface appearance and a tightly knitted thematic on a certain level of interpretation gives the Curious films a sense of depth and emotional complexity. The highly visible elements of social critique in the films – especially in Yellow – were lauded by a lot of the Swedish critics in the late 1960s. At the very least, one felt that the ambition to employ film as a political tool was novel and commendable. On the other hand, the Swedish critics and intellectuals debating the film did not really appreciate the documentary (or simply realist) aspects of the film. One felt that Lena was less than typical, and that the documentary material in the film was too manipulated in the editing to provide an “objective” depiction of contemporary Sweden. Some, of course, questioned Sjöman’s true intentions in mixing sex with politics.
Some thirty-five years later my reactions are the exact reverse, as I suppose they would be for most Swedish – perhaps most western – viewers. Beside the moments of supreme artistry by actors as well as the director, the most striking quality of the Curious films is their otherness as documents (at least symptomatically) of a time and a sensibility that simply are not there any more. The interviewees step forward, perfectly real, and remind us of the swift passage of time, the almost surreal scope of the cultural and political (not to mention linguistic) change that has taken place since the late 1960s. They are recognizable, yet truly alien. The melancholy of change and time passing is perhaps most urgent in the sequences featuring Olof Palme, destined to become one of Sweden’s most controversial Prime Ministers. In 1986 he was murdered, a major event that forever changed the Swedish self-image and, I believe, Swedish society. In 1966 he sits on his front porch with his son on his lap, his wife peeking out of the window reminding him that dinner will soon be ready. Gathered around him sits the film team; he speaks sympathetically to Vilgot about class consciousness.
And so, the theme of the film is grafted on to the historical moment of its inception and the events to come: innocence shattered by violent experience.
The extras in Criterion’s edition are very well matched with the films, and one can feel Vilgot Sjöman’s touch in the shaping of the whole. His introduction highlights the Curious films’ important role in his development as a director, and the excerpts from his film Self Portrait ’92 points in the direction of the very personal themes that provide the (apparently lacking) structure of the films, as outlined above. Some scenes can be seen with diary entries on the soundtrack, which gives background information as well as a sense of how the diary could function as yet another framing story. The DeGrazia-Rosset conversation taken together with the video essay by the ubiquitous Peter Cowie illustrates the impact and implications of Yellow’s release in the United States.
Finally, I am not sure that it would be right to say that I Am Curious – Yellow has been unjustly forgotten. It certainly has received a lot of attention over the years. But I Am Curious – Blue has been unjustly forgotten. No one gave it much consideration when it was released, and as far as I know it has not been screened much since then. It is a fine film, darker and dreamier than Yellow, and much more than its companion piece, it is Lena’s film. The ending of Yellow is formal, chilly. Lena and Börje descend kissing in the elevator in which Lena and Vilgot ascended in the opening scene. The mirroring figure takes precedence over any emotional impact the scene might have. Lena’s role as a puppet on the director’s/lover’s string comes to the fore. Blue ends on a completely different note. Lena’s face lights up at the sight of her mother and she walks erect towards her, out of the edifice of realities constructed for her.
Anders Åberg wrote his doctoral thesis on Vilgot Sjöman. It was published as Tabu: Filmaren Vilgot Sjöman [“Taboo: the film-maker Vilgot Sjöman”], Lund: Filmhäftet, 2001.
I Am Curious – Yellow
Jag är nyfiken – gul
Director Vilgot Sjöman Screenplay Vilgot Sjöman Director of Photography Peter Wester Editor Wic Kjellin Music Bengt Ernryd
With Lena Nyman Lena Vilgot Sjöman Vilgot Börje Ahlstedt Börje Peter Lindgren Rune, Lena’s father Ulla Lyttkens Ulla Magnus Nilsson Magnus Marie Göranzon Marie Holger Löwenadler The King and as themselves: Olof Palme, Jevgenij Jevtushenko, Martin Luther King
Produced by Göran Lindgren Production Company Sandrew Film & Teater AB Runtime 121 minutes
I Am Curious – Blue
Jag är nyfiken – blå
Director Vilgot Sjöman Co-director Bertil Sandgren (The Pentecostal Revival Church scene) Screenplay Vilgot Sjöman Director of Photography Peter Wester Editors Wic Kjellin, Carl-Olov Skeppstedt Music Bengt Ernryd, Bengt Palmers
With Lena Nyman Lena Vilgot Sjöman Vilgot Börje Ahlstedt Börje Sonja Lindgren Sonja Hans Hellberg Hasse Bim Warne Hasse’s wife Peter Lindgren Rune, Lena’s father Gudrun Östbye Lena’s mother Gunnel Broström The woman on the island Marie Göranzon Marie Magnus Nilsson Magnus Ulla Lyttkens Ulla and as himself: Henning Sjöström
Produced by Göran Lindgren Production Company Sandrew Film & Teater AB Runtime 107 minutes
Distributed by The Criterion Collection (region 1) Aspect ratio 1.33:1 Sound Mix Monaural Extras Disc 1 Introduction by Vilgot Sjöman. Director’s diary (excerpts). Video interview with publisher Barney Rosset and attorney Edward de Grazia. Videoessay on the film’s censorship and trial. Transcripts of the trial of the film (excerpts). Theatrical trailer with an introduction by Sjöman. Disc 2 Director’s diary (excerpts). Excerpts from Sjöman’s documentary Self Portrait ’92. Deleted scene with an introduction by Sjöman.