Mai Zetterling operating a camera
Stories & Ideas

Mon 28 Jun 2021

The birth of a cinematic colossus: Mai Zetterling and her ‘Loving Couples’

FilmReadRetrospective
Nick Bugeja
Nick Bugeja

Writer & Editor

Through a combination of industriousness and talent, the Swedish auteur broke through social and structural barriers of the time to direct her poetic, 'ambitious' debut feature.

I have been a child, a party doll, a mistress, a wife, a mother, a professional woman, a virgin, a grandmother. I have been a woman for more than fifty years and yet I have never been able to discover precisely what it is I am.

Mai Zetterling in her autobiography 'All Those Tomorrows' (1986)

"Your next big step in life will be when you enter holy wedlock", pronounces one of Angela von Pahlen’s male relatives (Jan-Erik Lindqvist) at a sumptuous commemoration of her 18th birthday. He stands at the head of a long dining table, speaking with such conviction and certainty it’s as though his words constitute an unshakable decree. Yet, his implicit demand goes unmet, as the forces of desire, male abandonment and the laws of biology conspire to produce another kind of future for Angela (Gio Petré), one of three women due to give birth in a Stockholm maternity hospital in 1915.

Mai Zetterling’s Loving Couples (1964) opens as the fates of Angela, Agda Frideborg (Harriet Andersson) and Adele Holmström (Gunnel Lindblom) converge on the hospital, an imposing edifice that could easily double as an asylum, mausoleum or prison. The staging and editing in this sequence, largely fluid and flowing, links these women together, gesturing towards a shared experience as women, pregnant women, within an oppressive social order.

Though, Angela, Agda and Adele are far from homogenous, Eisensteinian avatars designed to push a social and political message. As the hospital scenes and the flashbacks – weaving through the women’s pasts and memories – attest, there is a great diversity of disposition, class and sexual history among them. It is this dual task, of speaking to a common struggle and illuminating their individual humanity, that Zetterling finely executes.

In film and culture more generally, childbirth is usually depicted as a momentous, joyous occasion. However, Zetterling’s film shows that it can be equally fraught with feelings of angst and dejection; an event of exceptional, almost totalising solitude. The delivery rooms in which the three women lay are capsules of dread and trauma, sealed off to the rest of the world.

The trio of women are, ultimately, alone, failed by a patriarchal society that unilaterally sets and applies its own rules. "Men always let you down", Adele says to her husband, a farmhand she has begrudgingly married, lamenting the loss of a former love. Angela, meanwhile, falls pregnant to a well-to-do man named Thomas (Hans Strååt), armed with charming phrases but lacking any sense of commitment. "It’s his child too", Angela explains. Her aunt Petra (Anita Björk) replies: "No it’s yours. Yours alone." And Agda is forced into a sham marriage with a gay painter, arranged by the aristocratic father of her soon-to-be born child, Bernhard Landborg (Heinz Hopf), to conceal his secret.

Like Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955), John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991) and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), Zetterling’s Loving Couples is more than a promising debut feature film. It is a fully imagined work of stylistic command and a rumination on themes that would resurface in her subsequent films. In the words of critic Kenneth Tynan, it was ‘one of the most ambitious debuts since Citizen Kane’, an unqualified endorsement if there ever was one.

Mai Zetterling’s career in cinema began not as a filmmaker, but as an actress. Having trained at the Royal Dramatic Theatre School in Stockholm, she first made her mark in a pair of Alf Sjöberg films – Torment (1944), penned by Ingmar Bergman, and Iris and the Lieutenant (1946) – as a troubled young woman and housemaid, respectively. Soon after, she ventured into the world of British and American cinema, for the most part landing similar roles: playing the ingénue, the German refugee, the spurned wife. Zetterling was often cast for her good looks, her intriguing exoticism. This meant she was trapped in one-dimensional roles in fairly mediocre fare, such as the slapstick comedy Knock on Wood in 1954.

Mai Zetterling
Mai Zetterling

Unfulfilled, Zetterling began directing. She got her start making short documentaries for the BBC, before winning the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival with The War Game (1963). It’s a 15-minute film of two young boys tussling over a toy gun, a simple premise that is enlivened by the cinematic tools at Zetterling’s disposal: framing, editing, sound, offscreen action. This would put her on the path to a 22-year career as a writer and director of feature films.

Indeed, directing has long been regarded as the locus of cinematic power. This is doubly true for writer-directors, who construct the architecture of a film production and also imbue it with feelings and ideas. Given the structural barriers blocking women at every turn from becoming directors (many of which still remain), Zetterling’s rise to the director’s chair is a colossal accomplishment in itself, marking her transition from a gazed upon subject to a filmmaker in control; pulling the strings. It was Zetterling’s twin qualities of industriousness and talent that brought her artistic success, following in the footsteps of cinematic giants such as Maya Deren and Agnès Varda to get Loving Couples screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

One critic wrote of Loving Couples that “what is sympathy for female protagonists in Bergman’s films here becomes identification”. As Angela, Agda and Adele wait anxiously and ambivalently in the hospital, the film accesses the defining moments – of forbidden romance, relationship breakdowns, brokered marriages and fleeting sparks of freedom – in their lives that linger in their psyches. Thus, Loving Couples isn’t a distanced study of social relations, but an embodied portrait of women who respond to the hardships of life in their own way.

Zetterling’s modernist style, manifested in the film’s fragmented temporality, the Dreyerian close-ups of the women’s faces, and its probing questions of feminine identity, sexuality and selfhood, ensures that Loving Couples goes beyond a staid critique of the prevailing social structures of the day. It operates at the level of poetry, intermingled with political and social concerns.

Mai Zetterling in later years posing with a camera in her garden
Mai Zetterling

In the few pieces of writing on the film, the influence of Bergman is said to loom large over the work. There are certainly points of overlap with his films: Zetterling’s casting of Andersson, Lindblom, Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand; her collaboration with Bergman’s favoured cinematographer, Sven Nykvist; its apparent likeness to Brink of Life (1958); and its modernist style. But to characterise Zetterling as some kind of disciple of Bergman denies her the overdue critical recognition to which she is entitled, condemning her to forever live in his shadow.

Perhaps Zetterling put it best herself: "there are many things I feel haven’t been aired on the screen, haven’t been looked at from a woman’s point of view". Loving Couples, and the other films that comprise Zetterling’s oeuvre, do precisely that which the films of Bergman cannot.

– Nick Bugeja


Gemini Rising: The Cinema of Mai Zetterling (1–20 July)