Post Mortem July/August 2006

The Swedes’ Swingingest Swinger

Vilgot Sjöman (1924–2006)
More

For a brief moment, he was the most famous Swedish male on the planet. Before Björn Borg, before Benny and Björn from Abba, before … well, hang on, let me have a think—ah, yes, before Sven-Goran Eriksson, the outgoing manager of the England soccer team. Before all those famous Swedes, there was Vilgot Sjöman. In the late sixties, he loomed large—not in the same sense as Anita Ekberg and Bibi Andersson, but in the same general vicinity. Sjöman made a movie called Jag Ar NyfikenGul, or I Am Curious (Yellow), or, in some billings, eschewing parentheses for a colon, I Am Curious: Yellow. As it happens, the colon was one of the few body parts not on display in the film. The British censors snipped eleven minutes out of it. U.S. Customs seized the prints when they showed up here, and I Am Curious was banned, which only made Americans even more curious, and by the time it was unbanned, in 1969, Vilgot Sjöman was a cause célèbre, and his $160,000 film was a monster smash.

You can’t buy publicity like a government lawyer demanding to know, before the Supreme Court, whether the leading lady’s lips had actually touched the party of the first part’s parts. “I have a feeling,” answered Sjöman noncommittally, “that it was possible for her just to have her lips a couple of millimeters above the penis.” Below the title but above the penis, Lena Nyman—the “Swedish Hummingbird,” as she was dubbed—was the art-house darling of the year. Liberated by the Court from the attentions of the Customs service, Curious, though playing only in New York and New Jersey, quickly became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in America—a record it held for almost a quarter century.

I saw the movie some years later in high school. I was one of a stampede of adolescent boys who signed up for the film society when it announced a screening of I Am Curious (Yellow). The film society didn’t waste its time with westerns or musicals or Buster Keaton retrospectives; it specialized in vaguely arty films with extensive nudity. “What is this I Am Curious thing?” some unfortunate classmate would ask, and the others would shoot him a pitying glance and pass him the famous photograph from the picture, of Sjöman’s young protagonists embracing on a bed, and he’d stare at it with a faraway look, breathing through his nostrils like a sweating horse.

I Am Curious (Yellow) was an adult film. I don’t mean in the debased contemporary sense of industrially depilated porn starlets with unfeasible implants engaging in joyless mechanical thrashing. I mean in the sense that, aside from the sex scenes, it included an interview with the Swedish minister of trade. If that’s not “adult,” what is? It was certainly more adult than many of us new members of the film society were in the mood for. There were interviews with Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Martin Luther King Jr., and Miss Nyman questioned Swedes passing in the street about the Vietnam War and demilitarizing the Swedish armed forces. But in between these longueurs, the leading lady was certainly a game gal—and in a remarkable range of locations, including in a pond, up a tree, and outside the royal palace in Stockholm.

If I recall correctly, the connection between the interviews with Olof Palme et al. and the sex-in-a-tree bits was that Lena Nyman’s character—a sociologist called “Lena”—believes in both political freedom and personal freedom, and the film explores the ironies and contradictions between her commitment to pacifism in the political sphere with her commitment to aggression in the sexual sphere. Or something like that. Norman Mailer hailed it as “one of the most important pictures I have ever seen in my life.” Aside from the nudity, Sjöman also flashed key words from his political philosophy up on-screen: “NONCOOPERATION,” “FRATERNIZATION,” “SABOTAGE.”

The film pioneered a new cinematic concept: sex in a political context. Hitherto, there had been no context whatsoever in most movie sex. In the fifties, it was heartily earnest paeans to naturism. In the sixties, Russ Meyer and others inaugurated porn with plot. I once had to host a BBC featurette on soft-core Euro-porn, and after the first couple of films I was an expert on the conventions of the genre: the bisexual countess discovers the new stablegirl sleeping naked in the hayloft, and there then follows a sort of Scandinavian pre-echo of the current What Not to Wear reality shows, as the countess arranges a fitting session for the stablegirl’s new wardrobe, to the accompaniment of elevator music and occasional interjections—“That pipp‑ hole bra would rilly suit you, ja?”

Vilgot Sjöman, by contrast, kept his eye on the sociopolitical ball. “Do we have a class system in Sweden?” Lena Nyman asks her fellow Swedes. “It depends on the people,” she’s told. “Undress them, and they’re all the same. Dress them, and you have a class system.” Undress them while talking about the class system, and you have a boffo smash. Sjöman conclusively demonstrated that the biggest bang for the buck was in sex with context. In the years afterward, actresses lined up on talk shows to explain that they wouldn’t have done this or that explicit nude scene if it hadn’t been “totally in context.” With the right subtext and political theme, you could hardly restrain your leading lady from climbing out of her clothes and getting into context.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In