Loving Couples, Mai Zetterling
Courtesy of Criterion

Sexuality in ’60s Cinema: ‘Three Films by Mai Zetterling’

Three Films by Mai Zetterling reveal the themes in the controversial director’s work: women’s lives, their fraught and ambiguous relationships with sex and motherhood, and how women interact with each other.

Three Films of Mai Zetterling
Mai Zetterling
17 December 2022

In one of the extras on Criterion’s Three Films by Mai Zetterling, a long overdue acknowledgment of this filmmaker, her ex-husband David Hughes recalls that one morning, the acclaimed Swedish actress sat up in bed and announced that from now on, she’d start directing films. Within a few weeks, she’d secured funding for her first documentary, and her new career was launched.

When she turned her attention to features, she consistently made a scandalous splash at film festivals. Respectively at Cannes and then Venice, her first two features, Loving Couples and Night Games, had their posters censored as pornographic. Venice wouldn’t even allow the public to see the film. Bizarrely, Zetterling was the queen of “My films are at major festivals, but you can’t see them.” We can see them now, thanks to the Swedish Film Institute‘s 2K digital restorations and Criterion’s Blu-rays.

Loving Couples (Älskande par, 1964)

Loving Couples opens “cold” on an overhead shot of a chessboard floor as we hear a regular squeaking. The sound identifies itself as a trolley bed when a patient is wheeled across the space, and we realize this is a hospital.

The credits unveil a long list of names associated with Ingmar Bergman films, including photographer Sven Nykvist’s sharp and mobile black-and-white imagery. A viewer might assume we’re seeing another Bergman film until we arrive at the director’s name: Mai Zetterling, who first made an international splash by acting in a drama written for her by Bergman, Alf Sjöberg’s Torment (Hets, 1944).

Loving Couples takes place in a maternity ward and focuses on three women patients—as does Bergman’s Brink of Life (Nära livet, 1958), which stars two of the actresses in Loving Couples. The three patients relive multiple flashbacks to the events that brought them here, forming the main narrative. The longest segment finds all three women interacting on Midsummer Eve, a device that links Loving Couples to another Bergman item, Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende, 1955).

It was probably impossible to make films in Sweden without being in Bergman’s shadow, and Zetterling acknowledges his strong influence while ultimately going her own way. Her debut feature introduces themes she’ll continue to explore in her later films: women’s lives, their fraught and ambiguous relationships with sex and motherhood, and how women interact with each other, which is generally more important than their relations with particular men.

Loving Couples is also the first feature scripted by Zetterling in partnership with her then-husband, David Hughes. Their collaboration was so fruitful that it continued after their divorce. In a television documentary included as a bonus, Zetterling states that Hughes supported her filmmaking from the beginning, and Hughes reports that they worked on scripts in separate rooms, even separate houses or countries, revising and responding to each other’s work until satisfied. This harmony at a distance sounds wise and wonderful.

The source for Loving Couples is a series of novels by one of Zetterling’s favorite authors, Agnes von Krusenstjerna, a controversial Swedish writer on sexuality and mental illness. According to Wikipedia, the author herself was often in mental hospitals. She died at 45 under operation for a brain tumor. Zetterling would make a biopic about her, Amorosa (1986), so Loving Couples signals Zetterling’s early commitment to celebrating this misunderstood woman writer.

All three prospective mothers in the ironically titled Loving Couples are non-conforming to the ideals of motherhood and marriage. The most “traditional” is the angry, bitter Adele (Gunnel Lindblom), a housekeeper who resents having fallen from the middle class and being stuck with a husband who doesn’t satisfy her. She makes herself as unpleasant as possible to all. In the first reel, she’s informed that her fetus is dead, strangled on its cord in a possibly symbolic development. We’ll experience her flashbacks in the shadow of this foreknowledge.

The doctor (Gunnar Björnstrand) is brusque with Adele because he doesn’t like her, but we’ll see that he’s also a casual misogynist and cynic, which seems odd for his chosen profession but probably isn’t. He’s also a member of the extended family that includes all these women.

When Angela (Gio Petré) was orphaned, she hid under the table as the men of the family tried to decide where to put her. In a miracle of directness, her young spinster aunt Petra (Anita Björk) intruded into the meeting. She calmly claimed Angela, who appeared under the table and rushed into her arms.

Years later, after skirting lesbian attention from a mistress at finishing school, Angela returns to Petra’s home and, at first, doesn’t want men to intrude on their bliss. She gets mixed up with an older man who is Petra’s former lover. In the opening scene, Petra tells Angela, “Remember, this is our child”, so the flashback will explain this remark.

The childlike Agda (Harriet Andersson) is the most unconventional and free-spirited of the women, so much so that we sometimes worry for her safety or sanity. After a childhood brush with a would-be molester played by beloved, cast-against-type Åke Grönberg, she becomes a model for the brazenly eccentric and homosexual artist Stellan (Jan Malmsjö), Angela’s uncle.

The wealthy and sexually adventurous Mrs. Landborg (Eva Dahlbeck) almost succeeds in notching the flexible and accommodating Stellan on her bedpost, while her soldier son Bernhard (Heinz Hopf) is more successful with Agda. These developments lead to a sham marriage handled with much ceremonial mockery.

Moreso than a few moments of casual nudity, these unconventional and upstart elements might have made some traditionalists uneasy, although Loving Couples was generally successful. We’ve already noted that the film’s poster, which features abstract silhouettes of apparently nude people in various combinations, was refused at Cannes.

All this was nothing compared to the problems greeting her second feature, Night Games, at the Venice Film Festival. Screenings were closed to the public, and judges and reporters were given a private showing. Over at the San Francisco Film Festival, Shirley Temple Black resigned from being a judge over the film’s “pornography”.

Night Games (Nattlek, 1966)

Zetterling’s second feature is again structured around flashbacks, but they belong to one person, a wealthy young man named Jan (Keve Hjelm). In the opening scene, he leads his blindfolded bride-to-be, Marianna (Lena Brundin), into the country castle where he grew up. He promptly gets so lost in flashbacks that he forgets about her.

Despite her initially covered eyes, Marianna will be a wise Beatrice figure who must lead him out of this house and its maze of bad memories so he can “grow up”. She must take charge of his maturity because he can’t do it himself. Perversely, it helps that she resembles his late mother, Irene (Ingrid Thulin). Jan remarks on this as our Freudian red flags start waving.

Mercurial and dominating, yet essentially indifferent or hostile, Irene resents her marriage to an older man and lives with an entourage of loud parasites. The 12-year-old Jan (Jörgen Lindström) lives in a state of adoration and apprehension toward her. The adult Jan’s first flashback is to the stillborn birth of a sibling in the midst of mama’s unsanitary circus, which he witnessed. “This isn’t a hospital, and you’re too stupid and stubborn,” says the angry doctor, but we sense that she feels just as well without another child.

A scene of Jan’s sexual humiliation remains shocking, mainly because today, it’s highly unlikely that a child actor would be expected to play such a thing. It’s not graphic, just conceptually disturbing, and it’s essentially what got Night Games labeled pornographic. By the way, Lindström was also the unforgettable child actor in Bergman’s The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963) and Persona (1966), so the boy was in three monumental films of the decade.

Going back to an earlier scene in Night Games, Jan is so desperate for his mother’s attention that he puts on her makeup and wig to transform himself into a girl. Swedish 1960s cinema, in general, and Zetterling’s in particular, was ahead of its time and maybe ours.

In a climax that’s both a personal metaphor and possibly a political allegory, Jan announces his intention to blow the castle up, and that might anticipate Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970). This development was another of Night Game‘s talking points, as shown in a news segment promoting the film. When the journalist asks Zetterling if her film is about women’s emancipation, she clarifies “human emancipation”.

I speculate that one source of inspiration for Zetterling and Hughes’ script may be an early Bergman film starring Zetterling, Music in Darkness (Musik i mörker, 1948), in which her character redeems a blind man’s bitterness. Perhaps this is why the opening scene of Night Games inverts the situation by having the woman be temporarily blind.

The Girls (Flickorna, 1968)

Sex is the driving concern in The Girls, a meta-textual updating of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. The ancient Greek satire, dating from 413 BC, finds women uniting in a mission to create peace by refusing sexual favors to their husbands until the war ends. The play inspires films, musicals, opera, and graphic novels in the new century; one notable example is Spike Lee’s Chi-raq (2015).

In Zetterling’s vision, a group of actresses is staging the play. The play gives Zetterling and Hughes’ script a structure for an almost free-form series of memories and fantasies by the three main women: Bibi Andersson as Liz/Lysistrata, Harriet Andersson as Marianne, and Gunnel Lindblom as Gunilla. Two women are married and bored, while Marianne is an unmarried mother whose older married lover won’t get a divorce.

Here, Zetterling’s penchant for flashbacks and narrative play has created her most free and radical film of the trilogy and the most technically beautiful. Both Night Games and The Girls are shot by Rune Ericsson and edited by Paul Davies, who do outstanding jobs fulfilling Zetterling’s complex vision.

The self-reflexive, self-interrogating structure means that very few scenes are “real”. Most of them are subjective fantasies imagined in the moment, mainly by Liz, sometimes on stage and sometimes while thinking about the dialogue. She allows the role to affect her and challenges the play’s audience to engage in its ideas instead of passively enjoying a night of classic theatre.

The play’s relevance to modern society is underlined, as are the difficulties of forming easy solutions to the habits of human behavior – women’s behavior and men’s behavior. One of the more amazing fantasies shows an audience of women jeering at newsreels of famous male leaders, from Hitler and Stalin to LBJ. That’s an easy enough catharsis, but a more challenging scene finds the three women giving different public speeches, leading to an all-female brawl. This is Zetterling’s statement that women share the failings of men in selfishness, ignorance, fear, etc. Her prior films had already shown her jaundiced attitude toward motherhood.

Amid all this dream-surrealism and satirical comedy, ranging from nuclear bomb jitters to being chased by a mob of children, a few scenes provide a realistic, if stylish, look at the nuts and bolts of putting on a play and promoting it on television. The overall result is a very dialectical films of ideas and stylistic flourishes. It’s as though, instead of “The End”, the final message is “Discuss”. Now that we think of it, none of these films say “The End”. Night Games shows its credits at the end while Loving Couples and The Girls simply stop.

Alas, the smart and stylized The Girls was largely trashed and shunned in Sweden, and Zetterling wouldn’t make another film there until 1986. In Criterion’s Blu-ray booklet, scholar Mariah Larsson notes that the most positive review for The Girls in a major Swedish publication was the only one by a woman, Sun Axelsson. Another fan, Simone de Beauvoir, contacted Zetterling to propose a television serial based on Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; the mind spins at that unrealized project.

The Girls didn’t play at festivals until it opened New York’s First International Festival of Women’s Films in 1972. Now it’s Zetterling’s best-known film.

The Blu-ray extra cites some of her other films. These include Doctor Glas (1968), based on Hjalmar Söderberg’s cage-rattling 1905 novel, which I’ve read. Its elements include abortion, infidelity, forced “marital rights”, and murder. Continuing Zetterling’s festival curse, this film was supposed to play at Cannes before the whole thing got canceled due to the events of May 1968 in France. I’d love to see this film, plus Rune Carlsten’s 1942 version, for comparison. There’s a natural double feature.

Scrubbers (1982) follows machinations in a British girls’ detention center with strong lesbian storylines. Amorosa has been mentioned; it won Swedish acting awards for Stina Ekblad and Erland Josephson. The rest of Zetterling’s output is short films and television shows. One example is a 1972 episode of Omnibus starring Michael Gough as Vincent Van Gogh. For one of her last commissions, she made two episodes of Chillers (1990), a British anthology of Patricia Highsmith stories hosted by Anthony Perkins.

Zetterling remained consistently busy for three decades. Her work is scattered everywhere, preventing a comprehensive focus on her vision. In the end, controversies perhaps hindered her more than they helped. Criterion’s Blu-ray trilogy is now the best place to start with Zetterling’s creative output, and we should hope for more.