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A fearlessly transgressive, long-overlooked pioneer of feminist cinema, Swedish actor turned director Mai Zetterling ruffled the feathers of the patriarchal establishment with a string of bracingly modern, sexually frank, and politically incendiary films focused on female agency and the turbulent state of twentieth-century Europe. Her peerless ability to render subjective psychological states with startling immediacy is on display in Loving Couples, Night Games, and The Girls—three provocative, taboo-shattering works from the 1960s featuring some of Swedish cinema’s most iconic stars. With their audacious narrative structures that fuse reality and fantasy, their elaborate use of metaphor and symbolism, and their willingness to delve into the most fraught realms of human experience, these movies are models of adventurous, passionately engaged filmmaking.
The title of Mai Zetterling’s boldly iconoclastic debut feature—adapted from a cycle of seven novels by the provocative feminist writer Agnes von Krusenstjerna—drips with irony. In 1915, three pregnant women from varying social backgrounds (Harriet Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom, and Gio Petré) enter a maternity ward. Cue a swirl of perspective-shifting flashbacks that, with searing psychological insight, illuminate the divergent yet interconnected experiences that brought them there—and that came to a head during one lavish, debauched Midsommar celebration. Wildly subversive in its treatment of sexuality, gender, class, religion, marriage, and motherhood, Loving Couples is as electrifying a first feature as any in cinema history, announcing the arrival of an uncompromising artist in pursuit of raw emotional truth.
Outrageous and explosively controversial (the Venice Film Festival refused to screen it publicly, while John Waters has called it his favorite film), Mai Zetterling’s second feature is a blazing psychosexual odyssey with heaving Freudian flourishes. On the eve of his marriage to his fiancée (Lena Brundin), Jan (Keve Hjelm) returns to his childhood home—a sprawling estate stuffed with antiques—where he relives his memories of his beautiful, decadent, mercurial mother (Ingrid Thulin) and finds himself forced to confront his unresolved Oedipal longings. Seamlessly interweaving past and present, carnivalesque camp and potent symbolism, Night Games functions as both a feverishly perverse family portrait and a serious statement on the tormented soul of a modern Europe reckoning with the demons of its past.
Mai Zetterling’s cinema reached new heights of exuberant experimentation and fierce political engagement with this pointed and playful touchstone of 1960s feminist cinema. As they tour Sweden in a theatrical production of Lysistrata, performing to often uncomprehending audiences, three women (national cinema icons Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, and Gunnel Lindblom) find their own lives and marriages mirrored in the complex, combative gender relations at the heart of Aristophanes’s play. Onstage drama, offstage reality, and a torrent of surrealist fantasies and daydreams collide in The Girls, a slashing, sardonic reflection on the myriad challenges confronting women on their path to liberation, and on the struggles of the female artist fighting to make her voice heard over the patriarchal din.