Saturday Night Spotlight #7: Mai Zetterling

Swedish director Mai Zetterling (1925-1994) first made a name for herself as an actress of international renown. She starred in the Swedish-language drama Torment (1944), directed by Alf Sjöberg and written by a young up-and-comer named Ingmar Bergman. Zetterling then played the title role in the English drama Frieda (1947), directed by Basil Dearden and co-starring David Farrar and Glynis Johns, played the lead in the Bergman-directed romantic melodrama Music in Darkness (1948) and appeared in one of the segments of the Maugham anthology film Quartet (1948), which also featured British actors like Dirk Bogarde, Hermione Baddeley, Angela Baddeley, Cecil Parker, Honor Blackman and Wilfrid Hyde-White.

In the 50s and early 60s, Zetterling continued to be a presence in international film. She worked with many of the most popular actors of the era, including Danny Kaye in Knock on Wood (1954), Tyrone Power in Abandon Ship (1957), Richard Attenborough in Jet Storm (1959) and Peter Sellers in Only Two Can Play (1962). In 1957, Zetterling co-starred in The Truth About Women (1957), a dramedy starring such notable actors as Laurence Harvey, Julie Harris, Diane Cilento, Eva Gabor, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Marius Goring and Christopher Lee, but which was perhaps most interesting since it was directed by one of England’s few female directors, Muriel Box. Just a few years later, Zetterling made her directorial debut with the short The War Game (1963), which won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion for Best Short Film and was nominated for the BAFTA Film Award for the same prize. Zetterling focused on her career as a filmmaker for the next two decades, although she had a comeback as an actress in two films released in 1990, the Ken Loach thriller Hidden Agenda and Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story The Witches (Zetterling played the grandmother of the protagonist). Mai Zetterling’s career is unique: not only was she a beautiful actress, she was a director who challenged the usual patriarchal ideas and images of women and sex across many decades.

Loving Couples (1964) – Zetterling’s first full-length feature was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and yet it was also “banned” from the festival, not from competition or judges but from the viewing public (hence its ability to still be nominated for an award). Based on a book written by Agnes von Krusenstjerna (1894-1940), known for sexual frankness in her writings, Zetterling’s inclusion of nudity, explicit sexual content and a childbirth scene led to the problems at Cannes. Despite these setbacks, the film has an eminent cast and crew, including cinematography by Sven Nykvist and acting by Harriet Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom, Gio Petré, Anita Björk, Gunnar Björnstrand, Eva Dahlbeck, Margit Carlqvist, Inga Landgré and Lo Dagerman (daughter of Anita Björk and famed novelist Stig Dagerman). Loving Couples is the only one of Zetterling’s features that is available on Netflix DVD in America besides The Girls (1968), an adaptation of the Aristophanes play Lysistrata.

Night Games (1966) – A nominee for the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, this controversial, sexually-charged drama starring Ingrid Thulin is probably best remembered for its presentation at the San Francisco Film Festival. The festival’s decision to show the film disgusted board member Shirley Temple Black so much that she resigned from the organization, denouncing Night Games as pornography. Like Loving Couples at Cannes before it, Night Games was banned from the Venice Film Festival. One of the film’s biggest fans is John Waters, who chose to include the film at Lincoln Center’s fiftieth-anniversary retrospective of his career (in fact, it’s screening tonight!).

Scrubbers (1982) – Zetterling worked as a director in the UK film industry, as seen in this tough drama of two lower-class English girls (played by Amanda York and Chrissie Cotterill) on the run from the prison system, dealing with pregnancy and suicide along the way. The film also tackles lesbianism with York’s character. Scrubbers has been likened to another searing indictment of the British borstals, Alan Clarke’s Scum (1977), which was scripted by one of Scrubbers’ screenwriters, Roy Minton.

Amorosa (1986) – Zetterling’s return to Scandinavian cinema resulted in this period piece and biopic of the Swedish writer Agnes von Krusenstjerna, played by Stina Ekblad, co-starring Erland Josephson as von Krusenstjerna’s husband, the writer and translator David Sprengel. The cast also features a number of actors who, like Zetterling, had worked in Swedish films since the 1940s: Anita Björk, Gunnel Broström, Inga Gill, Inga Landgré, Mimi Pollak and Margreth Weivers. Besides directing, Zetterling also wrote and co-edited the film. Like Zetterling’s earlier films, it was again met with acclaim, being nominated for the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and winning two Guldbagge Awards (Sweden’s Academy Awards) for Ekblad and Josephson.

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