Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Besides Ingmar Bergman, the only other mainstream Swedish director most Americans can remember is Jan Troell with his The Emigrants and The New Land from the early 1970s. Liv Ullmann's 1995 Kristin Lavransdatter is a superb film that nobody seems to have seen. Long before Ms. Ullman decided to try the director's chair, actress Mai Zetterling changed careers with Loving Couples, an emotionally challenging pre-feminist tale of women in Scandinavia at the turn of the century. Zetterling's frank appraisal of male-female politics is less inhibited and more honest than the majority of supposedly shocking European art films.
Three women await their babies in a Swedish 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 the one married mother-to-be, but she hates her husband and her life as a servant. Agda (Harriet Anderson) is an accepting and loving free spirit who 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, the older Petra van Pahlen (Anita Björk) encouraged the relationship, as she herself regrets that avoiding a romance with the same man long ago.
Loving Couples is fascinating. Its take on femininity doesn't resemble anything seen in American pictures. Author Agnes von Krusenstjerna wrote a series of novels in the 1930s called the Miss Von Pahlen cycle, frank tales of sexual politics as seen in the well-to-do classes. If some of her characters seem overly emotional, it's not "female" hysteria but the psychological result of living in an aristocratic culture that severely limits their roles.
Many will consider the upscale culture pictured here to be decadent. The women want to be fulfilled but find that the most attractive men are too flighty to commit to ordinary marriages. Adele's family lost its social standing and to get by she had to marry a tenant farmer; she lives and works in the shadow of the big house where the other girls enjoy the frills she once thought were her birthright. The experience made her bitter and spiteful, and she openly wishes that her baby will die.
Agda is practically a kept woman but shows no anxiety over her status. Her flighty and unreliable artist lover even tries to pay a friend to marry her when she becomes pregnant. Agda is above such hypocrisy simply because her loving and accepting nature refuses to worry about it. Surely nobody we see would be fit to cast the first stone, as most of the women including the grand hostess Mrs. Landsborg (Eva Dahlbeck) are openly looking for male companionship outside of marriage. Several of the wealthier men keep mistresses. They consider them costly luxuries of the heart, such as the pair of 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. Blonde Angela's memories are the strongest. Her past is a full spectrum of erotic experiences starting with her adoption by Petra's family. At girl's school she remembers the staff trying to part a pair of coupling dogs; a lesbian teacher tries to seduce her. Most of Loving Couples plays out as a conventional chamber drama so we're quite unprepared when shown a group of naked girls, with Angela singled out for attention; Zetterling is frank and direct with material where a male director would be expected to be discreet.
Even with all the lovemaking going on or alluded to, Loving Couples isn't a film about sexual encounters. It's concerned more with the emotional truth of specific women in a given time and place. When the subject gets steamy, the camera doesn't flinch. Interestingly, a flirtatious stroll showing a couple circling and re-circling the same tree is just as erotic as anything in the picture. 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.
Mai Zetterling's experience as an actress is an obvious asset that comes through in the focused, intense performances. The cast is a fine collection of Swedish talent from Zetterling's generation. Gunnel Lindblom had earned recognition as Ingeri in Bergman's The Virgin Spring. Most of the smaller roles are less familiar to American viewers. Cult film fans may recognize Heinz Hopf, who plays the spoiled Landborg son. He later became associated with much more exploitative movies like Thriller - a cruel picture.
The impressive low budget production makes full use of a house and furnishings from a previous Ingmar Bergman film. Zetterling's relaxed and unfussy camera style evokes an older era populated with flesh and blood people whose problems we immediately recognize. Viewers searching out Loving Couples for its '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.
New Yorker and Project X's DVD of Loving Couples is a fine enhanced 1:66 transfer of a good film element. Although the picture is slightly grayish overall, it's a fine viewing experience even on a large TV screen. When Zetterling follows that flirtatious couple at the tree, 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 being in love in late summer.
The disc includes The War Game which is sometimes confused with the Peter Watkins BBC film due soon from Projext X and New Yorker. This War Game is a Mai Zetterling short subject that won a prize at the Venice film festival. It's 15 minutes long and equally well transferred. Subtitles for the feature come in both English and French and the menu offers a still gallery (featuring the pressbook) and a bio for Mai Zetterling. The attractive packaging includes a 12-page booklet with an interesting Zetterling essay on the making of the movie and notes about the film's source book and its author. As can be expected, Loving Couples was quite a scandal in international release. Even the abstract artwork used for its ad campaign (reproduced on the cover) was considered obscene in some quarters.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Loving Couples rates:
Supplements: Zetterling short film, bio, filmography, still and ad art selection, essays
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 21, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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