Sex and Politics: An Interview with Vilgot Sjöman

Mar 11, 2003

The Swedish director of I Am Curious explains how he fused the themes of eroticism, self-exploration, voyeurism, and nonviolence into a film about the new freedoms of the young.

QUESTION: I Am Curious seemed to be a cinematic Tristram Shandy, in the sense that it used the conventions of the film against itself; the attitudes toward sex, position of camera, putting the director in the film itself, etc. What were the ideas (social, sexual, cinematic) that you were working against?

ANSWER: I had made four films, the last being My Sister, My Love, which, I felt, had led me into a dead end. With My Sister, My Love I was trying to do a well-made play, translated into cinematic terms.

Q: You mean with a logical coherence?

A: Yes. Sort of beautiful lines and structure, in the period style that Bergman had invented for Swedish film. How do you deal with modern problems in costume? You have the Seventh Seal and others like it. So My Sister, My Love was really an exercise in his school. Although I think that the film had some feeling and emotions which were personal and not Bergman’s, it was that school and that tradition I had to break out of. With its completion I felt freed, but I thought, “My God, what am I going to do now?” And I answered: “Try all kinds of things.” You’re not going to do a well-made movie; the most important thing is that it somehow stay alive. It could be awkward or a failure, but I had to try. These two versions of I Am Curious were experimental. I tried to get away from the old techniques.

Q: What were some of these new techniques you discovered with I Am Curious?

A: One which was new to me was the interview. I approached a minister of trade. While filming him I put in a fictive situation, with me (as the interviewer) looking at Lena. This gave it another dimension. For me the important word was “play”—play with reality, don’t just depict it….

Q: This idea may be new to Swedish films, but doesn’t Fellini bring himself and the crew into his films?

A: Yes, and the funny thing is that Bergman has a hint of it in Persona. He made that film in 1966 and I made I Am Curious in 1966. We didn’t know what the other was doing since we were not in contact at that time. Of course, you can see from the film that I’ve seen many Godard films; also you can see that I am very fond of 81/2. I wanted to do my version of it. 81/2 is a self-portrait, but Fellini didn’t really portray the director himself. Mastroianni’s is a very bad part. He’s a sort of empty space; he has no action. There’s a lot of reflection of what is going on around him all the time which is beautifully done. But Mastroianni is looking at people all this time. He’s rarely involved. Now, what could I do that Fellini had not done before? Oh, I could play the part myself. But I wanted to avoid casting myself in the role of commentator on the action (the kind of thing you get so often); I should be involved in it. That’s how the love triangle with the other two actors evolved.

Q: You predicted in your diary that some people are going to think this film is outrageously sexy. The Customs Office of the United States has obviously felt that way. Yet your instincts were puritanical and the improvisations brought out artistic ideas that you would not have considered initially…

A: That’s true. I had a feeling of awkwardness about the love scenes I had made in previous films. I felt that if I was ever going to do a sex scene that had some value I had better get in touch with some people who are interested in doing this. So there wouldn’t be the usual emotional, psychological hurdles.

Q: What in particular made you dissatisfied with the way sex was presented on the screen?

A: Firstly, you have the general pattern of American/French/Italian films and how they deal with sex. In an American film you have a kiss and a fade-out in the neighborhood of a bed. What the Swedish tradition has done is to extend that idea. You have them in bed, you have them covered with sheets so you can’t see the genitals or the breasts. And then you devise camera angles to avoid exposing any of these things. I felt that I was very inhibited while doing traditional sex scenes, full of clichés…I thought, “If I’m going to do any kind of love scene it cannot be one of these stock situations. You have to break through these clichés if you are to do anything of value.”

Q: How did the actors respond to this themselves? Lena mentions in her diary certain recriminations about having to do these things, and yet what is amazing in the film is how spontaneous and attractive they make the sex scenes. Evidently, the refusal of previous films to confront sex implied an ugliness.

A: A lot of people would say that it is not attractive. You can see that you can affect the audience in different ways with the same images. I was scared in my first four films, but with I Am Curious I knew what situations I wanted for the actors, but I didn’t know what kind of love scenes we were going to invent. When I picked the actors, I didn’t realize that they were thinking along the same lines. Since I didn’t present a complete script but worked the whole thing out day by day in discussion, there were few problems, compared to what one might expect. They both had a sense of comedy in them which made it easier. If you were completely serious about sex, you’d have complete tension.

Q: The fact that you have a part in your film and are also filming it raises a question which you yourself mention in the diary, the question of voyeurism.

A: The camera and voyeurism are closely related to each other, but there are very few cinematic instances where the theme of the camera as voyeur has been developed. When I made my first love scene in my first film, I suddenly felt like a voyeur. I hadn’t thought of that before. This is part of the director’s profession. I told Bergman about this experience and he said, “Yes, you certainly are a voyeur. And you have a big camera which is catching it for you so that you can look at it over and over again.”

Voyeurism has to do with the director and the crew, but it has something to do with the audience, too. They are going into a closed room to watch other people. This is the whole tradition of movies. You don’t usually think of it in those terms, but, my God, if you are a girl of eleven and you watch the hero and heroine in close-up kissing each other, that’s voyeurism. What I’ve been doing is trying to bring this theme to the surface, open it up for discussion and illustrate it. I discovered that this was one of the main themes of the film while making it. So the title I Am Curious came quite naturally; it is another way of saying “I Am a Voyeur.”

Q: I am very interested in the relationship you see between the sexual impulse and the social one. Despite Lena’s interest in nonviolence, her lovemaking was fundamentally violent.

A: In I Am Curious I have covered many aspects of sex. It ends with violence, but people tend to forget that it begins with humor and tenderness. Lena and Börje have a nice time the first time they meet and on the balcony of the King’s Palace. The violence comes later in the countryside, but this is the thing that people tend to recall when they think of the film.

Q: It seems to me that one of the ironies of Lena’s involvement is that she wants to explore sex, which she sees as something potentially peaceful, but which turns out to be violent. She wants the world to be peaceful, but it isn’t. And she can’t understand it.

A: I was trying to introduce a Utopian idea about nonviolence: Sweden changing its military defense into one of nonviolence. I also planned that Lena should be a follower of Martin Luther King and the Movement. Then I started to embellish that theme, and suddenly discovered that the girl was surrounded with symbols of aggression. She had knives in her closet, and a rifle. This is really a strange adherent of nonviolence! Earlier I would have said that such objects were illogical, irrational in terms of Lena’s character. But I said, “No, there may be something to it.” She has a rifle and wants to use it, so let her use it….

What I’m doing in the film is depicting the contradictions of nonviolence. On the one hand you want both yourself and your society to be nonviolent, and on the other, it opens up the question of what should be done about the whole world. There are two themes in the film. One is about class society: people high up using people from the lower echelons of society. Then you have the nonviolent theme. What’s happening around the world? These two themes clash and collide. You have to use force and violence if you want to break down privileged societies, class societies. So the idea of creating a classless society without violence clashes fiercely with the idea of an open society, where people can move around freely.

Q: In your diary, you describe your conflict about whether or not to bring propaganda into the film. Why were you undecided about this?

A: The discussion in Sweden has shown that a lot of people are very bewildered by the film; they don’t feel the left-wing thrust in it. I’m surprised about that. They feel there is a lot of ambivalence in the way I presented almost all the themes. In doing propaganda, ambiguity is not an asset. Propaganda should be very clear, straightforward, and say just one thing. I disagree with that. I think the idea of making propaganda in a straightforward manner is banal. I think you can present propaganda with all life’s ambiguities. If I had said, “Look, now we are going to introduce nonviolence into Sweden, and this is how it’s going to be done,” that would have been artless. I think people will remember more my way. I don’t believe in presenting an idea without its contrary arguments.

Q: How did the Swedish audience respond to sex in I Am Curious? Were they shocked, upset, or confused?

A: You get all kinds of reactions. There are people who say, “My God, this was a relief. Finally a bit of reality. This was good an healthy.” Then you have the other element, saying, “This was the dirtiest thing I’ve ever seen. That man is destructive.” Then they write anonymous letters threatening to kill me or have Lena and me burned.

Q: What about the image of a much more liberal Swedish audience?

A: The discussion of sex is more open in our country than in America. It’s easier to be more open in a little country of seven million people which is very homogeneous compared to your country. I really wanted to portray Sweden in the late sixties in my film. I wanted to puzzle a foreign audience with it, saying, at once, that it is both very active and open, and still you find a lot of sex difficulties.

Q: Your film relies heavily on documentary techniques. Even in filming sex, your camera isn’t sneaking around trying to shoot at an erotic angle. Sex is portrayed straightforwardly.

A: That was an important decision for the photographer, and for the actors. Yet if we were going to break away from the old clichés, we had to say: this is what people look like; now put the camera on them and don’t use tricks.

Q: It astounded me that the actors, with you watching them, with the camera watching them, could get excited. That’s a difficult thing to do, isn’t it?

A: Yes, this is only possible with a small crew where you know each other well. All the members of the crew were between twenty and thirty, me being the oldest. They felt happy; they made a lot of jokes. We were like boy scouts on an adventure. We felt that there was some big dragon to be slain.

Q: What are your feelings about American censorship?

A: To me, personally, the present situation is ironic. In 1956 I was here on a fellowship, and as a writer and novelist interested in movies, I decided to study the relationship between the writer and the movie industry. I was sent to UCLA, and one of my major interests became the Hollywood production code: how it developed, where it came from; how you were able to say in this country that you didn’t have censorship when in fact you did. When I returned to Sweden, I set out to write a book on Hollywood. It took me four years to complete—it was almost a dissertation by that time! At the end of that period, I think I understood the strange cooperation in America between money and morals and how that affected films. And why the Hollywood code was wrong for religious, artistic, and psychological reasons. At that point I wasn’t involved in making films myself. As soon as I began, I ran into censorship problems. And here I am again, confronting the same old bugbear.

Q: Would you say that I Am Curious is pornographic?

A: No. Pornography titillates. It points at one thing, sex, to the exclusion of the rest of the picture. The people are not human beings in pornography. Usually you get to know very little about them. This combination of titillation and isolation belongs to pornography, but not to my film. I was not very concerned (nor were Lena or Börje) when we made the film with whether we were going to excite the audience or not. Our main interest was to add to the knowledge of human behavior in an artistic way.

Q: The question of nudity in films also raises the question of the actor’s response—a sense of shame, loss of freedom, etc. Did that affect your production?

A: There were surprisingly few problems while making the film, but there has been a boomerang effect. You present the film and then you begin to get other reactions.

Q: Society makes you feel ashamed?

A: It takes a sense of moral security that what you’re doing is OK and has its own validity. The pressure comes afterward, not while you’re making the film. That is really the most difficult anxiety because you tend to hide from yourself that you are affected by the criticism.

Q: What aspects of Swedish society were you analyzing?

A: What I feel I’m portraying is a kind of opening up of closed doors in Swedish society. What the film stresses, partly, is sex. But it is a very young and immature kind of sex. They are exploring each other’s bodies, curious to see how they work. I imagine that when Lena interviews her boys, she has a secret code for the sex value of the experience. Some of the scenes, like when they make love under water or in the tree, are clearly parody. I’m showing the new freedom of the sixties. As you know, we are now permissive about pornography, to a great extent. I am referring to that, while making fun of the technical excesses. You can certainly feel that in the countryside scenes. I believe you should do away with hypocrisy, but that still leaves room for parody.

Q: The improvisation in the film merges in a strange way with psychodrama to the extent that you are externalizing private fantasies. The film is the process of learning about yourself. Did you feel that the actors or you learned something new about the world in this experimental situation?

A: I became aware of a lot of things and certainly Lena did too. It’s a very personal thing. You become aware of contradictions in yourself. Things which were clear become blurred, things which were vague come into focus. Making a film is really exploring yourself at the same time. But when you get knowledge of yourself, how do you handle it, what do you do with it?

Q: Make another film?

A: I’ll be very curious to see what I do next. That will tell me something about what the results of the first experience were.

Q: The film, then, becomes almost a private journal? Not merely a social history, but an emotional one?

A: Yes, some people complain about that, maintaining it’s too personal and difficult for an audience to follow. But I do believe that I’ve done a portrait of contemporary Sweden. You could say that I have been mixing up Sweden with myself. Instead of portraying Sweden, I made a portrait of myself. This kind of mixing may be a fruitful approach.

Q: Why the two versions of I Am Curious?

A: Originally we were just gathering material, filming stories. We ended up with a tremendous amount of footage. I thought I should do one straight story, but that would have been a four-hour film. So I decided to make two films, the second telling the same story all over again—the story of Börje, Lena, and me making a film. But I have different material in each film, portraying different aspects of Swedish society. The Blue film deals with the state, Church, prison camps, and other things. My intention is to meld the two. You have a yellow pattern and a blue one. If you lay one on the other, you get a fuller picture. Yellow and blue are the Swedish colors. I want the two films to be regarded as a whole. I hope people, if they are interested, will see both.