DVD Review
By Ray Young





The Girls


Mai Zetterling’s biting commentary on sexual role play, now on DVD from New Yorker Video

Directed by Mai Zetterling. Written by Ms. Zetterling and David Hughes, based on the play ‘Lysistrata’ by Aristophanes. Cinematography by Rune Ericsson. Edited by Wic Kjellin. Music by Michael Hurd. With Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, Frank Sundström. 100 minutes. Originally released in 1968. DVD bonus feature: Lines from the Heart, a documentary directed by Christina Olofson. 75 minutes. Originally released in 1996.

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    The house sits on a precipice where you can see Mont Blanc on a clear day. On this particular afternoon, however, you can’t see it for the clouds. “Use your imagination,” suggests Gunnel Lindblom to Harriet Andersson, who laughs back, “but then it could be anything!” The two actresses will soon be joined by Bibi Andersson (no blood relation to Harriet), who arrives in an old Toyota hatchback, a reminder of how the business shortchanges so much of its best talent.
    Rarely do I find much of interest in the ghetto of DVD bonus material, but with New Yorker Video’s new edition of Mai Zetterling’s The Girls (Flickorna, 1968), we’ve been rewarded with Christina Olofson’s Lines from the Heart (I rollerna tre, 1996), a joyful celebration of these three exceptional Swedish actresses, of Zetterling’s picture, of Zetterling herself, and that spark of creative genius or madness that compels the artistic soul.
    In 1988, Zetterling and Olofson discussed making a documentary about all the actresses who’d worked for Ingmar Bergman, with a plan to gather them together for a reunion. But the timing could never be worked out and the project never took flight. After Zetterling died from cancer in 1994, “I found there had been too little written about her and her life as a visionary filmmaker and actress,” recalled Olofson in a statement that had been issued with Lines from the Heart. “Her idea for a film came back to me. The only film combining the talents of Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom was Mai’s The Girls, and it seemed a good idea to let these three meet again and talk about their work and lives. It was obvious to me that this film should be made in Mai’s house in the south of France, even if I at the time had no real reason for this.”
    Their extraordinary work for Bergman can never be duplicated. Harriet appeared in Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Cries and Whispers (1972), Fanny and Alexander (1982), and put the whammy on horny teenage boys in Summer with Monika (1952). Gunnel was in The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), Winter Light (1962), The Silence (1963)—one of her best performances, and Scenes from a Marriage (1973). And Bibi’s films for Bergman include Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician (1958), The Devil’s Eye (1960), Persona (1966), The Passion of Anna (1969), and Scenes from a Marriage.
    Those sixteen, mostly excellent films represent less than a quarter of Bergman’s total output as a director. Several of them feature vivid and complex women characters, though they’re ultimately shaped through the eyes and ears and sensibility of their male creator. Bergman may have asked his actresses to bring something of themselves to the roles, but the final product always bears his stamp. In Persona, a film centered around a nurse (Bibi Andersson) and her patient (Liv Ullman), Bibi does a miraculous job delivering ninety percent of the script’s dialog that tears away the fabric of her character. However, the role is imbued not with misogyny but rather a male resonance, proof of that inherent block separating the sexes that no amount of genius or cunning can ever transcend.


Mai Zetterling

    When Norman Jewison was set to film the story of Malcolm X, Spike Lee protested that only a black, someone who knew firsthand the specific obstacles faced by the subject, was qualified to direct. Shouldn’t this theory extend to the sexes as well? Are men capable of creating truly believable women on screen or in literature? Perceptive females may laugh at or choke on the limited male perspective, no matter how ‘sensitive’ an artist (even one such as Bergman) may be. And then there are women, either too conditioned or too apathetic, who readily concede to the stereotypes and clichés, and use them as role models. Zetterling understood this damaging effect, and used The Girls to punch through archaic, stifling but still widely practiced conventions.
    Born in Sweden, she had acted for Bergman, once, in Night Is My Future (1948). It was part of a ragtag career in front of cameras across Europe—“She didn’t feel at home in Sweden,” says Gunnel, “she became a true internationalist”—sometimes playing the unlikely ingénue in thankless productions ground out like sausage. With the career came an odd following, a fan club from Hell. “I didn’t have young, handsome men for admirers,” Zetterling once said. “I had unhappy creatures from loony bins. Crackpots who whispered they’d pray for me, who sent me long poems about God, about reincarnation. These chosen few with the mark on their foreheads have always been drawn to me and I to them.”
    In the 1960s, she discovered herself as a director, first challenging sexual mores in a repressed society in Loving Couples (1964), and then put a horrific spin on motherhood and fruitless nostalgia in Night Games (1966). Two years later, The Girls pounced on feminism with a vengeance, realizing metaphoric castration as the key to some new order of world peace.
    Co-writing the screenplay with her husband, novelist David Hughes, Zetterling traveled back to Aristophanes’s play, Lysistrata. Written in 411 BC, the barbed political satire illustrates the title character’s solution to end the Peloponnesian War by urging the women of Greece to withhold sex from their men. In The Girls, Bibi, Harriet and Gunnel portray actresses touring in a stage production of Lysistrata, but their reality bends from the themes and insinuations of Aristophanes. The men in their lives are bothersome, vile caricatures, while the women erupt into whirlwinds of anger.
    Indeed, any form of subtlety—outside of the film’s performers—is effectively trashed. Zetterling does not honor her sex as much as she envisions it as a prison. “I have been a woman for more than fifty years,” she wrote in her autobiography, “and yet I have never been able to discover precisely what it is I am, how real I am. I ask myself—perhaps my femaleness is just a human disease.” By design or not, this sentiment carries over to the catty male characters in the film while pointing all of humanity toward collapse. The denial of sex is no longer a means to end war, but an end to life entirely.
    The Girls is fiery polemic brimming with adroit passages, ripe dialog, and stretches of freewheeling abandon set in a seemingly artificial landscape. Some scenes, such as the riot in the movie theatre where the entirely female audience throw tomatoes and eggs at images of Hitler, Lyndon Johnson and other mid-century world leaders, sizzle with passion and anarchy. Harriet’s moment in the department store, applying lipstick at the cosmetics counter but quickly fleeing at the sound of a crying baby, is capped off by a struggle in the wind and rain, transparent symbolism that nonetheless works. The black and white photography of Rune Ericsson begins by signaling passages from reality to fantasy in lighting and overexposed images; but once he and Zetterling allow these gimmicks to blur with what’s ostensibly ‘real,’ we’re no longer certain of where we are.
    “She was a witch,” says Bibi in Lines from the Heart, “quite mad.” Gunnel replies, “Mai was a socialist without using the vocabulary.” Back in the kitchen at Zetterling’s house thirty years after The Girls, Zetterling’s dead and her three actresses reflect on the picture and whatever else strikes their fancy. Christina Olofson films with an unobtrusive camera—compare Bibi’s warmth and intimacy in Lines from the Heart with her rather distant presence in the interview sessions recorded in 2002 for MGM’s series of Bergman DVDs.
    Zetterling named her home in France ‘Le Mazel,’ a play on the Yiddish word for luck. She described it as “a dilapidated castle on top of an iron rock. Last summer this house was a huge sandcastle. Sand was sifted and the dust was whirling. Now it’s stone…I dream of turning it into a hive of creativity for friends and soulmates.” She may have believed that luck was essential for a fulfilling life and whatever happiness may be, but The Girls is the end result of mounting dissatisfaction and terminal frustration. It’s Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’ moving rapidly and challenging us with fear and innuendo and anger, and the dreaded realization that we’ve been existing in the belly of a monster beyond our comprehension.