Post Mortem July/August 2006

The Swedes’ Swingingest Swinger

Vilgot Sjöman (1924–2006)

Not all critics were impressed. Rex Reed dismissed Sjöman as “a very sick Swede with an overwhelming ego and a fondness for photographing pubic hair.” But pubic hair was thin on the ground in the late sixties, and if it took a sick Swede with an overwhelming ego to make this artistic breakthrough, so be it. I once asked Victor Lowndes, Hugh Hefner’s head honcho at the Playboy Club in London, about this important matter—his girlfriend had been the first centerfold to be shown with pubic hair—and he replied, “Well, we’ve all got it, haven’t we? Judging from today’s Playboy, apparently not, but back then the combination of pubic hair and discussions of Swedish politics proved to be box-office dynamite. It would have been a stretch to assert that you were only there—as with your Playboy subscription—for the interviews. But, as Vincent Canby of The New York Times observed at the belated premiere of I Am Curious (Yellow), “The crowds were large, mostly middle-aged and ruly.”

With his intense Nordic mien and thick-rimmed spectacles, Sjöman was an unlikely cementer of the gloomy Swedes’ sudden reputation as the sixties’ swingingest swingers. The son of a construction worker, he left school at fifteen to work for a cereal company and then as a prison orderly before, already into his thirties, coming to America to do film studies at UCLA. He had written unproduced plays, some of which he adapted into novel and film form. And even when he got hep to the sex racket, he was hampered by an undue attachment to the “well-made play.” If you overlooked the bestiality and incest and whatnot, much of his pre-Curious work was as conventionally structured as standard West End or Broadway drawing-room fare.

His last film before the bonanza was My Sister, My Love (1966), based on ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, set in eighteenth-century Syskonbadd and starring Bibi Anders­son as the eponymous eighteenth-century sis gone bad and Per Oscars­son as the twin brother with whom she’s enjoying a vigorous incestuous relationship. The critics yawned: unconventional sex in a conventional narrative structure—you’ll have to do better than that. Some years ago, I visited the British director Derek Jarman on the set of his War Requiem. Racked by AIDS and wheezing and coughing somewhat distractedly, he quite out of the blue named My Sister, My Love and its startling ending—a new life retrieved from death—as one of the films that had made the most profound impact on him. And I’d wager that, unlike Norman Mailer, he meant it, for why otherwise mention it? By then, Vilgot Sjöman was an all-but-forgotten one-hit provocateur.

He followed I Am Curious (Yellow) with I Am Curious (Blue), whose material was in effect leftovers from the first film. Yellow and blue are the colors of the Swedish flag, and the idea of the two films was that in combination, you got a complete picture of the state. Blue, or Jag Ar NyfikenBlå, concerned itself, according to Sjöman, with the Church, prison camps, government, and so forth—which, practically speaking, boiled down to Yellow with a lot less sex. To fans of the first film, Blå was a big blah. Some critics argued that Yellow was a man’s film and Blue was a woman’s film, but if you did as Sjöman suggested and laid the movies end to end, you noticed more people were getting laid end to end in the first film. I Am Curious (Yellow) was the blue film, I Am Curious (Blue) was the red film—socialist politics leavened fitfully by Sjöman’s camera lovingly lingering on the sweetly chubby Lena, his muse.

And that was it. Having been raped by a German shepherd in Sjöman’s 491 and had her oral-sex technique analyzed by the U.S. Supreme Court, Lena Nyman figured she’d exhausted the director’s range of possibilities and went off to become one of the most respected serious actresses at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, in Stockholm. Sjöman, on the other hand, went off to make Till Sex Do Us Part, a farce with a hit title it couldn’t live up to. He kept busy: lots of books, not so many films, and with diminishing returns. In the wake of I Am Curious came more films for the curious: The Devil in Miss Jones and Last Tango in Paris, with suburban audiences lining up to see Brando bark, “Get the butter!” And then came video and the Internet, and the mainstream sex film faded away as quickly as it had appeared. New stars mostly declined to take their clothes off, and even with his on, Brando looked as if he’d have been better advised to yell, “Get the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!”

It seems hard now to recall what the fuss was all about, and indeed, from the bemused tone of some obituaries, Vilgot Sjöman might as well have been a director of silent movies or singing-cowboy pictures or some other obsolete genre. Cinematic sex, like so much real sex, was over almost as soon as it had begun. By the nineties there was no surer way to laughing-stock status in Hollywood than some ill-considered “erotica.” Joe Eszterhas’s reputation never recovered from Showgirls, and poor Sharon Stone was reduced to blaming the failure of Basic Instinct 2 on cowardly moviegoers unwilling to go against the new puritanism of the Bush tyranny. Apparently we’re no longer curious, but we are yellow.

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