Post Mortem July/August 2006

The Swedes’ Swingingest Swinger

Vilgot Sjöman (1924–2006)

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.

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.

Mark Steyn is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications.
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