Book Reviews

SCANDINAVIAN BLUE: THE EROTIC CINEMA OF SWEDEN AND DENMARK IN THE 1960S AND 1970S

By • Jul 2nd, 2010 •

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And now for a book named, appropriately, after cheese – Scandinavian Blue, a scholarly study of the era of increasingly no-holds barred sex in Scandinavian film that made the names “Sven” and “Inge” the butt (you should pardon the expression) of so many dirty jokes.

We start, like many pornographic movies, innocently. In the Fifties, a genre of film called “summer films” which depicted stories of irresistible nudity and lovemaking along isolated, idyllic lakesides, became insanely popular in Sweden. (Long winters, sparse population, Aquavit….). The sex was pretty, but morally paid for by unwanted pregnancies and sordid consequences. Even Ingmar Bergman made a summer film – SUMMER WITH MONIKA starring Harriet Andersson. It has, however, a Bergmanian twist — Monika is a rebellious teen who likes sex, consequences be damned, and leaves her husband and the baby at the end of the film. Stevenson points out she is the first in a long line of the director’s heroines to stare into the camera and “not give a damn what anybody including the audience thinks.” One tends to forget how influential Bergman was in the late Fifties and early Sixties; a neat little photo from Truffaut’s 400 BLOWS of Jean Pierre Leaud looking at a still from Monika makes one wonder if Bergman’s early fame did not get a considerable aerodynamic lift from his Scandinavian insouciance towards sex and nudity.

This kind of obsessively researched and thoughtful information is typical of Stevenson’s approach to his subject. Unfortunately, as his subject ripens it does not always do justice to Stevenson’s dignified scholarship. In 1969, Denmark legally abolished all censorship in print, imagery, performance, etc. At a time when the whole Western World was feeling the love of sexual liberation, republishing ‘Fanny Hill,’ celebrating Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, the scene in Scandinavia quickly moves beyond the art film and goes, whole hog, into everything that can be put on film and sold as smut. Thereby hangs the rest of the tale/tail – 280 plus pages packed with the details of nearly every Scandinavian film marketed for its sex during the period. If there is any flaw to this book – and it is perhaps a small flaw since it is self-evident – it is Stevenson’s willingness to downplay the one thing that may be even more powerful than sex – money. It is not that he overlooks it – indeed he frankly analyzes and critiques distributors and their strategies. I just personally find it a wee bit disingenuous that so many directors really thought they were making anything other than pornography. Of course nothing clouds the brain more than the “other brain.”

In the vast herring net Stevenson trolls with, he does manage to catch many interesting figures like filmmaker Mai Zetterling, who moved from in front of the camera to behind it, and made such personal and eccentric films as NIGHT GAMES and LOVING COUPLES, which have been compared to Bunuel and honored at Cannes; and Vilgot Sjoman, director of the famous I AM CURIOUS YELLOW. The latter, which is unknown to anyone under the age of 50 today, was a ubiquitous pop culture beacon of the era. Looking back, it seems to me that the period of sexual liberation has quickly been swept under the carpet – we may have effectively disowned that part of our pasts as it came to seem dangerous and distasteful in the age of AIDS, Bush and the deification of the American Family. Stevenson is part of a small but growing number of scholars who look at popular fantasy not with the jaundiced jabber-speak and psychobabble of Lacanian scholars like Zizek (who is often right but practically incomprehensible) but with a straight-shooting, no shit diction that reminds me of Chris Hansen on Dateline inviting pedophiles to take a seat.

All in all, I am glad to have learned what I did by reading this book – just not so much of it. Perhaps it is best summed up by what Time Magazine said about a 1967 film, also starring Harriet Anderrson, called PEOPLE MEET AND SWEET MUSIC FILLS THE HEART: “at once boring, roguish and very entertaining.”

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