Three Films by Mai Zetterling

by Glenn Erickson Dec 27, 2022

The ex- movie star Mai Zetterling found more satisfaction in directing. In interviews she denied that she is an intellectual, but more intelligent films about male-female emotional politics are hard to come by. Unusually frank and intense, these dramas for the 1960s art film circuit pack a visceral impact — the extreme situations and content disturbed critics concerned with Good Taste. It’s a trilogy of respected works: Loving Couples, Night Games and The Girls.

Three Films by Mai Zetterling
Loving Couples, Night Games, The Girls
The Criterion Collection 1162
1964-1968 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date December 13, 2022 / 79.95
Written by Mai Zetterling & David Hughes
Directed by
Mai Zetterling

The immensely talented Mai Zetterling began as an actress on stage and film and eventually found herself most satisfied writing and directing. Initially an exotic export from Sweden, she didn’t care for Hollywood but found creative opportunities in England, where she was accepted as an artist.

The Three Films by Mai Zetterling in Criterion’s disc set are officially Swedish, although her writing partner David Hughes and other collaborators came from England. Her shows share some performing talent with Ingmar Bergman, and also that same dreamy B&W Scandinavian light, but are artistically and tempermentally different. Sven Nykqist was one of the cinematographers.

‘Sixties art film culture gave Zetterling a commercial opening but her films prioritize pragmatic people-politics over psychological parables or visual poetry. In no way can she be compartmentalized as a feminist Ingmar Bergman. Her dramas are piercingly intimate in a way that feels like real life, and her often-unpleasant characters are direct in their desires, passions and vices. Some festival audiences got more ‘frankness’ than they wanted — characters from across the sexual spectrum, an actual childbirth scene, a scene where a character vomits on camera. We’re told that the invited festival judge Shirley Temple was revolted by one of Ms. Zetterling’s movies, and resigned from her duties. Now what could be a better endorsement for Mai Zetterling than that?



Loving Couples
1964 / 118 min. / Älskande par
Starring: Harriet Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom, Gio Petré, Anita Björk, Björnstrand, Eva Dahlbeck, Jan Malmsjö.
Cinematography: Svan Nykvist
Production Designer: Jan Boleslaw
Costume design: Birgitta Hahn
Film Editor: Paul Davies
Original Music: Roger Wallis
Screenplay by Mai Zetterling & David Hughes from a novel by Agnes von Krusenstjerna
Produced by Göran Lindgren, Gösta Peterson, Rune Waldekranz
Directed by
Mai Zetterling

The emotionally challenging Loving Couples examines three women at the turn of the 20th century. Zetterling’s frank appraisal of male-female politics is less inhibited and more honest than the majority of supposedly shocking European art films. It is adapted from a series of 1930s novels called the Miss Von Pahlen cycle, frank tales of the well-to-do classes. The high emotions are the result of an aristocratic culture that severely limits women’s roles.

Three women prepare to give birth in a Swedish maternity hospital. All three know each other from the previous summer at the large Landborg estate. Their doctor, Jacob Lewin (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a cynic who judges women as weaklings but is himself an adulterer. Adele (Gunnel Lindblom) is married but hates her husband and her life as a servant. Free spirit Agda (Harriet Anderson) became pregnant by artist Stellan Von Pahlen (Jan Malmsjö). Inquisitive virgin Angela (Gio Petré) allowed herself the pleasure of an affair with a middle-aged archeologist. Her best friend Petra van Pahlen (Anita Björk) encouraged the relationship, as she herself regrets that avoiding a romance with the same man long ago.

Nobody we see would be fit to cast the first stone at these women. The grand hostess Mrs. Landsborg (Eva Dahlbeck) is openly looking for male companionship outside of marriage. Several of the wealthier men keep mistresses. They consider them luxuries of the heart, such as the fancy automobiles owned by the hospital’s two resident surgeons.

The women wait to deliver in an antiseptic, slightly creepy hospital, visited by friends and loved ones. The bulk of the story is told in elegant flashbacks. Agda is practically a kept woman. When she became pregnant, her unreliable artist lover tried to pay a friend to marry her. When Adele’s family lost its social standing she had to marry a tenant farmer; she now works in the shadow of the big house where the other women enjoy the frills that were once her birthright. Bitter and spiteful, Adele openly wishes her baby will die.

Some of blonde Angela’s memories include erotic experiences. She remembers the staff at her girl’s school trying to part a pair of coupling dogs; a lesbian teacher tried to seduce her. We’re unprepared for Zetterling’s bath house scene, with Angela singled out for attention; Zetterling is frank and direct with material where a male director would be expected to be discreet.

Compared to the American norm, Loving Couples’ take on feminine values is shockingly direct. Despite all the lovemaking going on or alluded to, the film is more concerned with the emotional truth of specific women in a given time and place. A flirtatious scene showing a couple strolling around a tree is a surprisingly erotic highlight. The lighting changes radically. They circle the tree several times, moving from a perfect exposure under the leaves to a glowing overexposure on the sunny side, and back again. The shot at first looks like a ‘mistake,’ but ends up expressing the carefree feeling of summer love.

The camera doesn’t flinch when the subject gets steamy. The tale ends with the three deliveries, one of which presents us with a live-childbirth scene, another surprisingly frank moment that Ms. Zetterling saves as a surprise. Viewers seeking ‘hot content’ should be prepared for a picture that actually lives up to the promise of the liberated screen; it broadens our understanding of human relationships.

Mai Zetterling’s honesty and frankness were not welcome at some film festivals. Critics even singled out Loving Couples’ original ad art, depicting nude figures in motion, as being in questionable taste.



Night Games
1966 / 105 min. / Nattlek
Starring: Ingrid Thulin, Keve Hjelm, Lena Brundin, Jörgen Lindström, Naima Wifstrand, Monica Zetterlund, Lauritz Falk, Rune Lindström, Christian Bratt.
Cinematography: Rune Ericson
Production Designer / Art Director: Jan Boleslaw
Costume design: Birgitta Hahn
Film Editor: Paul Davies
Original Music: Jan Johansson, Georg Riedel
Screenplay by Mai Zetterling & David Hughes story by Zetterling
Produced by Göran Lindgren
Directed by
Mai Zetterling

Night Games is the most eye-opening of the three shows. It is the one that wasn’t shown to an open audience at Venice, and had content that encouraged festival judge Shirley Temple’s retreat back to nice-nice land.

The weird tale could almost be a horror movie, with the decadence of the rich substituting for a supernatural curse. The adult Jan (Keve Hjelm) isn’t sure that his proposed marriage to Mariana (Lena Brundin) will come off, as he’s haunted by the perverse family situation of his boyhoood. His emotional abuse toward Mariana might be a sidewways effort to protect her from what he thinks is his own warped personality. As if conducting a test, he takes her to the family country house, an imposing structure with a circular tower. This brings back constant memories of his strange upbringing. His wealthy mother Irene (Ingrid Thulin) was an imperious, cynical and shockingly licentious woman who lets Jan attend her debauched parties.

One of these parties is arranged for her to deliver a child in the full company of her guests, servants and musicians. Irene also plays incestuous games with Jan, becoming too intimate and then pushing him away. We immediately understand his petty cruelties as an adult.

Jan remembers his wise Aunt Astrid (Naima Wifstrand). We also meet several greedy, perverted hangers-on that attempt to control Jan after his mother dies. Twenty years later, the same group of dissolute leeches hang around the castle, using it as a center for more debaucheries. Jan is haunted by these experiences. He may torment Mariana because he is conditioned to do so. Mariana is convinced that he’s secretly trying to free himself from this curse, and steels herself to help him. He describes himself as a child, and Mariana plays along, without surrendering her dignity.

Night Moves constantly shifts between the present and the past, as Mariana tries to motivate Jan to stop acting as if his life is a Gothic Novel. The childhood episodes are pretty explicit. Ms. Zetterling clearly used intimate situations to motivate her actors: it’s a real pregnant woman preparing to give birth before the drunken party guests. Later on, a marriage night is consummated while the spoiled revelers entertain themselves nearby with homemade pornography. A guest strips to her underwear so that the films can be projected on her body. They come off as cultured lowlifes, parasites. Jan seems to be keeping them around to test Mariana.

The festival conservatives had some genuine concern regarding the use of child actor Jörgen Lindström, of Bergman’s The Silence. He’s fully naked with Ingrid Thulin playing with him and talking about masturbation, etc.. Thulin’s Irene comes off as a thoroughly corrupted aristocrat, wantonly cruel and malicious. We can see how Luchino Visconti would see her as the natural choice to play the monstrous mother of his The Damned.

Night Moves has the psychological framework of a horror picture. The adult Jan’s obsession with his past involves the literal dredging up of a secret trunk, long ago sunk in a too-symbolic well in the basement of the castle-like house. We’re not at all convinced that Mariana’s cure for his obsessions will do any good — Jan is so casually cruel to Mariana (and even moreso to one of her girlfriends) that we must take it on faith that he’s worth redeeming. He holds one last formal-dress party, at which the guests wonder why workmen are placing explosives throughout the house. When the invitees realize what’s happening, they immediately loot the house of its jewelry, silver and precious antiques. I suppose Jan needs to make a clean break from his entire past, but this turn of events does seem a bit schematic.



The Girls
1968 / 100 min. / Flickorna
Starring: Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, Frank Sundström, Äke Lindström, Stig Engström, Margreth Weivers, Leif Liljeroth, Ulf Palme.
Cinematography: Rune Ericsson
Production Designer: Charles Delattre
Costume Design: Ulla-Britt Söderlund
Film Editor: Wik Kjellin
Original Music: Michael Hurd
Screenplay by Mai Zetterling & David Hughes from the play by Aristophanes
Produced by Göran Lindgren
Directed by
Mai Zetterling

After the period-set Loving Couples and the perverse memory piece Night Games Zetterling and David Hughes made the murder tale Dr. Glas for a different producer. They then completed their ‘Sandrew’ trilogy with The Girls, a contemporary story in a mostly lighter vein. Three actresses touring a classic Greek play must deal with their fragmented lives. Zetterling augments her usual insights into character with semi-fantastic digressions, cinematic trickery, and an engaging sense of humor.

A professional theater company featuring several well-known actresses tours with Lysistrata, the Aristophanes play about wives and lovers withholding sex to make their men abandon plans for war. Liz Lindstrad (Bibi Andersson), Marianne (Harriet Andersson) and Gunilla (Gunnel Lindblom) set out in good spirits, until parallels between the play and their personal lives begin to get on their nerves. Their distant husbands and lovers (Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, Frank Sundström) think of them as shallow and overly emotional. The director and producer chide them for taking the play too seriously. Marianne, the kept woman of a married man, wonders why she doesn’t take better charge of her life. Liz must deal with her aversion/desire to be recognized in public. All three are bothered in a restaurant by men looking for an easy pickup. After curtain calls one night in a provincial town, Liz startles everyone by addressing the audience. She asks them what the play meant to them, what has been shared between actors and public. The only response is polite silence.

Mai Zetterling’s vibrant, extroverted films have little in common with Ingmar Bergman’s more introspective meditations. The Girls touches on serious issues but maintains a playful attitude. Although aware of the newly articulated feminism movement, Zetterling’s women are not symbols of liberation. Just as Lysistrata doesn’t presume that the women’s sex strike is necessarily justified, these emancipated females are fully aware of their own vanity and selfishness. Marianne, Liz and Gunilla want to be recognized as loving women and as serious professionals knowing full well that they really aren’t in control of either role.

The women are unpredictable both on stage and off. They loudly reject the unwelcome males in the restaurant but are doubly conscious of the need to be attractive to strangers. Liz wants to be considered a serious professional yet dotes on being recognized in a store. In one of the more amusing subplots, she tries to interact with her ‘public’ by more or less inviting herself to dinner at home with a local businessman and his wife. She finds that her celebrity doesn’t really give her an instant rapport with everybody she meets.

The film tries out some Fellini-like cinematic embellishments. Marianne’s childish play in the snow with her married lover is seen in such high contrast that they end up being dark details on a field of white. A light-hearted chase scene interrupts a fashion show at an indoor mall. Liz has a complicated daydreamin which the men in her life get together in a boy’s club to voice their liberation from foolish women. Liz’s thoughts suggest that her theatrical career is based on needy exhibitionism — she imagines herself stripping before a large audience of men.

Zetterling’s show avoids pretension and none of its adult content is exploitative. The Anderssons and Lindblom are a delightful trio of nervy, vibrant females — sexy but not coquettish and sensual without debasing themselves. The Girls ends with a series of experimental images. The partying thespians dissolve into abstract patterns in distorting mirrors, a choice that sounds artificial but works quite well.



The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Three Films by Mai Zetterling presents these three fine pictures in handsome, visually flawless B&W remasters that better the DVDs released by New Yorker Films back in 2006. All three pictures are presented in new 2K digital restorations.

Disc producer Elizabeth Pauker doesn’t try to impress us with the quantity of extras. Each carefully chosen item makes its mark. We’re given some fine interviews and two longform documentaries. Maybe I Really Am a Sorceress is a career docu built around a candid and thoughtful interview with Ms. Zetterling. In the second feature-length docu Lines from the Heart the three actresses of The Girls reunite at Mai Zetterling’s home in the south of France to discuss their lives, acting and their work together. We cannot help but compare the three women and their film images from three decades before; they’re an object lesson in aging gracefully.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Three Films by Mai Zetterling
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
New interview with author Alicia Malone
Maybe I Really Am a Sorceress, a 1989 documentary featuring interviews with the director; coscreenwriter David Hughes and actors Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, and Gunnel Lindblom
Lines from the Heart, a 1996 documentary with Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, and Lindblom
Interview with Zetterling from 1984
Swedish television footage from the production and premiere of Night Games.
Insert pamphlet with an essay by Mariah Larsson.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Three Blu-rays in Keep case
December 26, 2022

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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