Monday, May 25, 2009

Lolita's film festival: Vilgot Sjöman

Vilgot Sjöman: 1924-2006

I've seen a lot of respectable bloggers making their own "film festivals" (see the adorable Matthew Coniam's viciously tempting Frank Tuttle Film Festival), and decided to make a contribution of my own.

After recently having watched My Sister My Love (original title: Syskonbädd 1782, 1966), from which I haven't yet quite recovered, I decided that the subject for my own film festival would be the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman's protegee, the innovative Vilgot Sjöman. Haven't heard of him yet? No? Have you heard of "the Swedish sin"? Okay, but you do think about Swedish women as blonde and elusive? Okay, the initial indication of that comes from Arne Mattsson's One Summer of Happiness (original title: Hon dansade en sommar, 1951), where astonished audiences over the world saw Ulla Jacobsson's naked breasts - but I think offended Swedish women have a lot to blame on the fellow I now will introduce to you. (Just a small note: I am not to find among the offended women.)

Hang on, I think you'd like to put his name in bittersweet memory.

Vilgot Sjöman was born on December 2, 1924, in a working class family living in Stockholm, Sweden. At the age of 15 Vilgot worked as a clerk for a cereal company, but things would start to look brighter when he got his degree at Stockholm's University when he was 21. He started working in a prison, where he began writing plays, none of which was ever adopted on the theatre stage.
Three years later, 1948, he wrote a novel based on one of his plays called The Teacher (original title: Lektorn), which described a tense father-son relationship. A film based on the novel was released in 1952, called Defiance (original title: Trots) by Gustaf Molander.
This was the first, fresh breeze of what was yet to be created by Vilgot Sjöman - a series of provocative films dealing with relations, social standards and society problems, always stretching the boundaries of cencorship.

In 1956 Vilgot Sjöman had made his way to the United Stated and taken up a scholarship to study film at the UCLA. He worked as an apprentice for George Seaton during the filming of The Proud and Profane (1956), starring Deborah Kerr and William Holden, and soon felt ready to return to Sweden and turn the film industry and the cencorship upside down.
His debut as a film director was with a film called The Swedish Mistress (original title: Älskarinnan, 1962), sometimes just called The Mistress. The film shows a young woman torn between two men, one older and one younger, and had a cast that included regular Ingmar Bergman actors like Bibi Andersson (Persona, 1966) and Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, 1957).
The same year he assisted Ingmar Bergman in the filming of Winter Light (original title: Nattvardsgästerna, 1962). During that time he made a documentary called Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie (original title: Ingmar Bergman gör en film, 1963), following Bergman through the making of Winter Light. An extract from the documentary, with English subtitles, is included below.

But it was with Vilgot's second film, 491 (1964), that the cencor scissors (say that ten times in a row!) started to bother our dear director. The film was based on a novel by Lars Görling, and dealt with juvenile delinquency and homosexuality, a hot but avoided topic in Sweden at the time.
About the title: in The Holy Bible you can read about St. Peter, asking Jesus about how many times he should forgive his brother. Seven? Jesus answers that he should not forgive him seven times, but seventy times seven. 70 x 7 = 490.
The tagline of the film explains it further:
It is written that 490 times you can sin and be forgiven. This motion picture is about the 491st.
The film is made to look like a documentary that follows six tough boys being subject for a social experiment - one of observation. The boys are allowed to go wherever they want, do whatever they want, as long as they reside in the home that was appointed to them by the authorities. The absence of boundaries soon drives the boys to a life consisting of the pure thrill of brutality, petty crimes and anarchy. One scene that disturbed the audience, and quickly was cut, was a girl that, off-screen, was raped by a dog. Another cut out scene involved a homosexual rape.
The film remains unreleased in Sweden.

Stills from 491.

His next film was called The Dress (original title: Klänningen, 1964), and covered a disturbed mother-daughter relationship. The film, though featuring respected actors (among them the Ingmar Bergman favourite Gunnar Björnstrand, the squire Jöns in The Seventh Seal) it was totally rejected by the critics.

The next film by Vilgot Sjöman is the one I mentioned in the beginning of this post - My Sister My Love (also called Bed Siblings), and it is, to say the least, a remarkable film. To take it from the beginning:
The film is based upon a tragedy written somewhere between the years 1629-1633 by playwright John Ford, named 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. (Says quite a lot, huh?) Its subject of incest made the play one of the most controversial ones in the English litterature. The play was excluded from a 1831 collection of Ford's litterature, and the title has been changed many times to more acceptable versions like Giovanni and Annabella, 'Tis Pity or The Brother and Sister. The critics have been hard on the play well into the 20th century for not condemning the immoral characters enough. In 1961 Luchino Visconti directed a French adoption of the play at the Théâtre de Paris with Romy Schneider and Alain Delon.

And now to the Sjöman version. Apart from changing the names and the locations to Swedish respective ones, and redusing the moral dilemmas of the leading roles, Vilgot Sjöman has adapted the play to the screen without doing it any harm. The leading characters are played by Bibi Andersson as Charlotte and Per Oscarsson as Jacob.
As the original Swedish title indicates, the plot takes place in Sweden i the year 1782. At the beginning of the film, the young nobleman Jacob has just returned from France to his cherished sister, Charlotte. A sweet reunion scene is followed by Charlotte's announcement that she is getting married to baron Carl Ulrik Alsmeden (played by my #1 male icon Jarl Kulle). Jacob's reaction is not the one you'd expect - he gets so frustrated that he actually kills a chicken with his bare hands. In a successful attempt of making his sister jealous, he shows interest for a young Audrey Hepburn copy of a girl, Ebba (Tina Hedström). One thing leads to another, and a stolen kiss in the dark between the siblings is the sparkle that starts a fire that never could be put out. As the immoral Count Schwartz we once again see the irreplacable Gunnar Björnstrand.
The film is a masterpiece - but you can't walk away from that deep inside disturbing feeling (as intended). I wish someone had filmed my facial expressions when the film was over. I still need to recover.

You can see the last scene of the film here. (Not for touchy people!) It's not texted, but there's hardly any dialogue neither. Translation here:
[Jarl Kulle, the man] "Get the doctor. Get the doctor!"
[old woman] "It's a healthy baby. It's a totally healthy baby."

Stills from My Sister My Love.

The film that brought Vilgot Sjöman international fame (or at least a heck of a lot of attention) was released the next year. Does the title I Am Curious (Yellow) (Jag är nyfiken - gul, 1967) ring a bell? If not, then you have missed out on something.
This film is about a girl of twenty called Lena (played by Lena Nyman). She is a sociology student who is curious of everything that has to do with life. She wants to experience everything and collects information about it, storing it in an enormous archive. She deals with relationships, sex, political activism, meditation and interviews people about the social classes in Sweden. The film is made as a pseudo documentary, allowing us in humorous side plots to see the actors' and the director's reaction to the story and each other.

Lena: Do we have a class system in Sweden?
The interviewed: It depends on the people. Undress them, and they're all the same; dress them, and you have a class system.

Quote from I Am Curious (Yellow)

Posters and stills from I Am Curious (Yellow) and (Blue).

The film raised an international outcry for its nudity and realistic intercourse scenes. The film was shortened with eleven minutes by British cencors. In the United States copies of the film were seized by U. S. Customs in January, 1968 for being obscene, and the film itself was banned as pornography in most parts of the United States. Even though the US Supreme Court overturned the anti-obscenity ban on First Amendment grounds, the film was still only screened on two venues in the country (one in New York City and one in New Jersey) in March, 1968.
However, the film's notoriety guaranteed its success, and for the next 23 years it was the most successful foreign film in the US.

We have a lot to thank Vilgot Sjöman for when it comes to the more and more obvious boycott of the horrible Hay's Code that restricted the film making from 1934 to this date. I Am Curious (Yellow), and its sequel I Am Curious (Blue) (Jag är nyfiken - blå, 1968), inspired to John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972). (The colours in the titles are of course references to the Swedish flag.)

You can see an extract from I Am Curious (Blue) here. No nudity, though.

"One of the most important pictures I have ever seen in my life."

Author Norman Mailer on I Am Curious (Yellow)

Vilgot Sjöman would later return to similar themes in his later work, but the ice had already been broken and people weren't as upset anymore. Worth mentioning, though:

1971 - Till Sex Do Us Part (original title: Troll), about a young couple who believe that they will die if they have pre-marital sex.
1974 - A Handful of Love (original title: En handfull kärlek), for which he received the Swedish motion picture award Guldbaggen (translated as "The golden beetle", I guess...).
1995 - Alfred (or Alfred Nobel), Vilgot Sjöman's last film about the inventor, industrialist and founder of the Nobel Prizes, Alfred Nobel.

In 2003 he received the Ingmar Bergman Award for his contribution to Swedish cinema. Three years later, in 2006, Vilgot died of cerebral haemorrhage, having made an unforseen mark in both national and international film history.

Vilgot Sjöman: You get a love scene with Lena. A love scene with consequences. 
Börje: What kind of consequences? 
Vilgot Sjöman: I don't know. I'll think of something. 

Quote from I Am Curious (Blue)

Harry Schein, Gunnar Björnstrand, Liv Ullman and Vilgot Sjöman.


Radiation Cinema! said...

Lolita: This ones a whopper! I had not heard of Vilgot Sjöman, although I was aware peripherally of the I am Curious movies and never much . . . well, curious (something about 60s era films often leave me flat). I am eager to see 491 for starters. Something tells me I'm going to have a fine time finding these titles at Amazon.

I wasn't able to say Censor's Scissors 10 times. I just made a strange hissing sound after about 6. I challenge anyone to do better. -- Mykal

Lolita said...

Radiation Cinema:
A whopper, indeed! Haha. Yes, they're not too easy to get ahold of, I believe... But look for My Sister My Love under its original title "Syskonbädd 1782", because the Swedish DVD version I have actually has English subs (!). I recommend that one.

Christopher said...

..Till Sex do us part.. :o)))

Keith said...

I love this post. I would definitely attend this film festival. I hope your week has started off well.

Matthew Coniam said...

I really enjoyed reading this; great to see you spotlight something from your homeland!
I too am ashamed to say I knew hardly any of these films... we have a terrible tendency here to think that Bergman's all there is.
Now I am curious indeed!

Jonas Nordin said...

Great stuff indeed! Vilgot Sjöman becomes more and more interesting with time. Some of his films are possibly the most interesting and innovative Swedish cinema has ever seen.

Lolita said...

Yeah, great title, haha.

Good, thanks! Oh, how could a week start off badly when ones boyfriend just got his salary? Shopping! ;)

Matthew Coniam:
How nice! I hopes that I could live up the standards you set up with your film festival at least a tiny bit! Yes, I recommend Sjöman, indeed. See My Sister My Love, if you can get ahold of it, truly fascinating film!
Well, he WAS inspired my Bergman (his protegée, as I wrote!), so this is just taking one dig deeper into the Swedish film contributions!

Jonas Nordin:
That I agree with - I believe many people just found him provocative and silly when his films first came out. But now - film treasures!

getsbis said...

well darling... some more movies into my 'must see' list. thanks. really.

and I wanted to say that I always look at your profile photo - they amazes me how lovely you can be. I like how you can be faithful to your life style and all.

Lolita said...

Great Gatsby:
Great that you enjoyed the post!
Oh, thank you! Very kind words. Well, I want to make it look like I wake up in the morning looking like Clara Bow! Haha.

Anonymous said...

Wow! This was trully an amazing, educating post! Thank you soo much for posting! :)