Oct 11, 2012
If there is one female auteur that has yet to get her due, it is Swedish filmmaker/actress Mai Zetterling, a controversial member of the so called ‘Hollywood Left” and a purported communist and fierce feminist who is strangely all but forgotten in our modern day Occidental world of gender neutrality and forced equality. Acting in cinematic work from all around the world during her nearly 1/2 century long career in film, ranging from acting alongside Dirk Bogarde in the British anthology film Quartet (1948) to the Roald Dahl film adaptation The Witches (1990) directed by Nicholas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing), Zetterling ultimately made her greatest contribution to the history of film with her experimentally adventuresome auteur-pieces. After first stumbling upon her work after randomly viewing her British female prison flick Scrubbers (1983) – a work inspired by the success of Alan Clarke’s similarly bleak yet captivating work Scum (1979) – I did some research and discovered that Zetterling originally directed extremely controversial and experimental arthouse flicks in her homeland during the 1960s. With her first feature-length film Älskande par (1964) aka Loving Couples, Zetterling not only managed to get the film banned at the Cannes Film Festival due to its explicit erotic persuasion, but also had her femininity brought into question by certain film critics. Indeed, after watching some of her early works, I must agree with the pompous film critic that soundly yet sardonically stated, "Mai Zetterling directs like a man.” Deeply and irrevocably affected by the critic’s remarks like a heartbroken teenager who had been dumped by her first true love, Zetterling acted in a reactionary manner by attempting to explore unfeminine feminist themes in her subsequent works. Although her late-period work Scrubbers no doubt has the distinct feel of a femicommie rant, Zetterling’s second feature-length film Nattlek (1966) aka Night Games is a work I would have never thought could be directed by a woman, nonetheless a fierce feminist, if I didn’t know otherwise. Just as defiantly salacious and morally ambiguous as her previous work Älskande par, Zetterling’s Nattlek would earn the distinction of being banned from the Venice Film Festival, thus securing the feisty female auteur reputation with Leni Riefenstahl as one of the most controversial and artistically ambitious lady filmmakers who ever lived.
Although not unwarranted, most of Zetterling’s detractors have criticized the filmmaker’s works as highly derivative and – even worse – works of plagiarism. Admittedly, Zetterling’s minor masterpiece of Swedish cinema Nattlek is a work that is quite thematically and aesthetically similar to Swedish alpha-auteur Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). Additionally, a number of scenes featured in Nattlek, especially the carnivalesque party sequences featuring flamboyant and flaming fag characters, recall Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Still, with that being said, Nattlek is an original film in of itself and a movingly and mortally melancholy one at that. Having the visual and emotional essence of a Bergman film from a decade earlier like Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) minus the charming comedy, The Seventh Seal (1957), but especially the aforementioned Wild Strawberries (1957), Nattlek features the rich and ravishing black-and-white cinematography associated with the work of the greatest Swedish filmmaker to ever live, yet with an exceedingly bleaker and more artistically belligerent artistic flare. Featuring Bergman stars Ingrid Thulin (Wild Strawberries, The Magician, Winter Light) and child actor Jörgen Lindström (The Silence, Persona) in two of the leading roles, Nattlek, much like Wild Strawberries follows a protagonist as he comes to terms with less than fond memories of his past. Shot almost entirely in a medieval Swedish castle, Nattlek centers around Jan (Keve Hjelm) – a sexually and emotionally sterile man-child – as he comes to terms with his materially comfortable, yet emotionally debilitating childhood. Psychologically castrated by his cold, calculating, sadistic, self-centered mother Irene (Ingrid Thulin) at an early age – which reaches its peak when she scolds and humiliates the boy for masturbating – Jan has trouble sexually satisfying his fiancée/wife Mariana (Lena Brundin). When things take a turn for the worst in regard to his companion’s health, Jan – who describes himself as already ‘dead’ – must decide whether he wants to live his life in the past as an emotional cripple or to give his wife the fresh, new life she deserves. Seamlessly weaving scenes from the past and present, Nattlek is a work that highlights how familiar places and objects can open old wounds.
Despite its intrinsically crestfallen and disheartening persuasion, Nattlek – not unlike Wild Strawberries – concludes on a rather rosy and transcendent note, even if it partially echoes the conclusion of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death. Unlike your typical (and atypical) contemporary feminist, Mai Zetterling did not shy away from the mostly unmentioned topic of mother-on-son/woman-on-boy sexual and psychological abuse, which is uniquely and uncompromisingly portrayed in Nattlek; a cerebral yet sometimes grotesque cinematic work that still has the power to make viewer’s stomachs turn. Inadvertently causing the death of her second born by her narcissistic negligence by insisting that she rather have a carnivalesque bedside party than proper access to hospital medical facilities during childbirth despite her wealth and turning her son into an impotent, emotional cripple by the way of incestuous child abuse and sexual humiliation, only to die before her son reaches his teenage years, high-class whore Irene makes one of the most deplorable and dastardly yet physically delectable high-class whores to ever grotesquely grace the silver-screen. If one learns anything from watching Nattlek, it is that behind every male faggot, warped transvestite, and impotent man with Peter Pan syndrome is a sadistic vainglorious cunt with too much time on her hands. As the countess of a castle full of conspiring fairies, whorish Jazz singers (Swedish singer Monica Zetterlund has a small role in the film), and debauched aristocrats, mother Irene of Nattlek makes for an aberrant type of femme fatale of the overzealous micro-dictator sort in a role that makes the royals of the popular HBO television series Game of Thrones seem like unsophisticated peasants with base taste. If you're looking to see a film with a decisively feminine yet gnarly touch, you won't find a better example than Zetterling's wonderfully exploitative and undeservedly forgotten minor masterpiece of Swedish arthouse cinema Nattlek.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 7:49 PM
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