Ever wonder what an Ingmar Bergman film would be like if directed by a woman? Even if you never did, Judge Jesse Ataide still highly recommends this film.
"These corridors are like prison."—Dr. Jacob Lewin (Gunnar Björnstrand)
It stars Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Gunnel Lindblom and Eva Dahlbeck. It's photographed by Sven Nykvist. It's Swedish. An Ingmar Bergman film, no? Surprisingly, it's not. Though certainly indebted to the Swedish master both thematically and stylistically, Loving Couples is the directorial debut of Mai Zetterling, a Swedish actress who gave up a career in Hollywood to pursue her fiercely independent ambition to be a director in her own right.
What makes Loving Couples even more interesting is that it's a surprisingly sophisticated film, more than capable of holding its own against the towering Bergman oeuvre.
Facts of the Case
The ironically titled film is an episodic film loosely revolving around three women: the ethereally beautiful young aristocrat Angela (Gio Petré, Wild Strawberries), giddy social climber Agda (Harriet Andersonn, Smiles of a Summer Night) and Adele (Gunnel Lindblom, The Virgin Spring), Angela's embittered servant. All three women find themselves pregnant and at a maternity ward run by a misogynist-leaning doctor (Gunnar Björnstrand, Winter Light), and in anticipation of their deliveries, all three women look back at their lives, tracing the buildup to this moment in the hospital through the stories of their sexual maturation.
Adapted from a 3,000 page novel series by Swedish author Agnes von Krusenstjerna, Zetterling and her husband David Hughes condensed Krusenstjerna's seven sprawling novels into a single screenplay, taking the film's name from the fifth book in the series. Labeled by her contemporaries as "the Swedish Proust" and often likened to D.H. Lawrence, Krusenstjerna explores the inner lives of her characters with an unusual candor for the time. It was this frankness in dealing with female sexuality that initially attracted Zetterling, who then crafted a screenplay that emphasized her goals and aspirations as a feminist filmmaker.
Loving Couples carries its feminist agenda on its sleeve, and subsequently takes on a lot of taboo topics not typically depicted in such a direct manner on screen. Pregnancy, sexual fulfillment, sexual repression, adultery, premarital sex, lesbianism, male homosexuality, bisexuality and pedophilia are all explored in varying degrees during the film's running time, making a film like Bergman's The Silence (which caused an international scandal a year before Loving Couple's release) extremely tame in comparison. It's not hard to see why Loving Couples caused a sensation in its own right, with critics divided on both its contents and technical merits and several countries banning the film outright (even the poster was controversial—the silhouette figures pictured on the DVD's cover art got the poster banned from Cannes. Oh, how times have changed).
But what's striking when viewing Loving Couples today is how the film approaches these potentially inflammatory topics with an earnestness and keen sensitivity, even during stretches when the subject matter lends itself to exploitation. One scene set at a proper boarding school, for example, plays like Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock with nudity—but Zetterling focuses on the emotional turbulence of the situation instead of the exposed flesh, transforming the scene from a lurid portrait of sadism into a poignant depiction of sexual repression. This seems to be Zetterling's underlying approach to the material, and the film as a whole benefits greatly from it.
Enhancing the thematic sophistication of the film is Zetterling's superb stylistic choices. The stark black and white cinematography is certainly reminiscent of Bergman, which is no surprise, since Sven Nykvist served cinematographer for some of Bergman's most famous films: The Virgin Spring, Persona, Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander, among others. Interestingly, the visual style of Loving Couples seems to combine the bleakness of the Nykvist-helmed films like Through a Glass Darkly with the delicate splendor of a film like Smiles of a Summer Night, which was shot by Gunnar Fischer, the other cinematographer Bergman regularly worked with. But Zetterling proves to be an extremely inventive director in her own right, to the point where her style becomes borders on the self-consciousness. But it's self-conscious in the way, say, Citizen Kane is self-conscious—one gets the impression that the director is so excited in the stylistic decisions that he or she gets to make that the enthusiasm overrides the potential to overdo things.
And something has to be said about the all-star cast. Zetterling takes full advantage of the acting talent she's amassed, which reads like a who's-who of early 1960s acting talent of Swedish cinema (only Bibi Andersson and Max von Sydow are conspicuously absent). It's difficult to single out just one performance to praise—even though the storylines of the three main character don't intertwine until well into the film, Loving Couples gives the impression of a grand ensemble effort more than anything else.
The New Yorker release of this film is simply outstanding in all respects. The quality of the picture can be described as nothing less than excellent—the black and white images are simply luminous, with a hardly a trace of image defects of any kind. The audio receives similarly high marks.
Included in the extras is Zetterling's Wargame, a 15-minute short film that won the Golden Lion for Best Short at the Venice Film Festival. It's a remarkably crafted film in its own right, and anticipates the stylistic bravura of Zetterling's first feature film. A wordless story of two boys who push themselves to increasing an increasing level of danger (literally), it demonstrates how overtly political a filmmaker Zetterling was from the very beginning. Other extras include a filmmaker biography and filmography, a still gallery and a helpful booklet, with a piece by Zetterling on the filmmaking process behind Loving Couples, as well as a brief background of author Agnes von Krusenstjerna. Both of which are extremely informative.
After seeing this film, I can only say that in my mind, Ingmar Bergman no longer holds a monopoly on Swedish cinema. Let's hope New Yorker releases some more of this remarkable woman's films in the future.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Mai Zetterling award-winning short film "Wargame"
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