Mai Zetterling,

"I want to know what’s going on".

posted on 16 october 2022


Mai Zetterling (1925-1994), a Swedish film star of British cinema in the 1950s, gradually abandoned acting for fear of becoming an "ageing vamp".  She thus decided to direct , creating several resolutely feminist films.


"I want to know what's going on".

CThis is the first line of dialogue in the cinema of Zetterling, who directed her first feature film, Loving Couples, in 1964. The line is spoken by the young Angela, one of a trio of heroines of the film, along with a woman who has just lost her child and another, a victim of paedophilia. Angela refuses to be put to sleep when she gives birth; she wants to "know what's going on". Zetterling was 39 when she directed Loving Couples. She had débuted as an actress under the direction of Ingmar Bergman, Basil Dearden and Mark Robson. As a filmmaker, she inaugurated a cinema that could be called: Everything you always knew about women and more! For Zetterling, the world of women was a world of great abundance, the likes of which has never been seen before!

Loving Couples, 1964


Augmented reality

Zetterling was a temperamental filmmaker. In 1965, she directed Night Games that captured a man's memory of his volatile and toxic mother as he returns with his fiancée to his now deserted childhood home. Visually, everything was carnal: close-ups of orchids, a character writing a musical score on a young woman's bare buttocks, or the mother giving birth in front of everyone, as if she is queen. Zetterling captured all this in a very vivid black and white, more white than black, with a desire for clarity, achieving an almost documentary-like quality. (Incidentally, Zetterling was also a very witty and astonishing documentary filmmaker).

Night Games, 1965


"Thirty seconds of heaven for thirty years of hell!"

This is how a male character in Loving Couples sums up his relationship with women to a fellow student. The male-female dichotomy is one of the great themes of Zetterling's cinema, expressed in the form of a veritable misunderstanding of women by men who are suspicious of emotions considered too base. In 1968, Zetterling directed The Girls: While on tour to perform Aristophanes' Lysistrata (the story of women who go on a sex strike to have their demands met), three actresses question their relationship to men. "Being a housewife is important," one of them states, or,  "A woman can't get involved in politics". These girls in search of modernity step outside the boundaries. Zetterling searches for a suitable element worthy of them. The director develops this with a West Side Story-style ballet sequence. The women move forward in staccato steps and push the men backwards. They tear off their clothes and throw them at the husbands before beating them up with comical judo moves!

The Girls, 1968


Licking shoulders

Female sensuality is a territory without restriction or limits as seen by Zetterling's camera. It is also the subject of great "precursor" artists who were stashed away in asylums because they did not want to understand them, such as the Swedish novelist Agnes von Krusenstjerna, who was interned and for whom Zetterling directed a biopic entitled Amorosa in 1986. The picture explores female desire with joy and simplicity. Young girls ask themselves how to kiss a man, or how one ‘makes’ love. They play at licking each other's shoulders, kissing gently in the water, things which, because of their liberated candour, seem dangerous in a society still ruled by men.

Amorosa, 1986




Virginie Apiou


Screenings :

The Girls by Mai Zetterling (Flickorna, 1968, 1h40)
Villa Lumière Sun. 16 9:15am | Villa Lumière Mon. 17 11am | Lumière Bellecour Tue. 18 8:30pm

Amorosa by Mai Zetterling (1986, 1h57)
Pathé Bellecour Sun. 16 11:15am | Lumière Terreaux Wed. 19 10:45am | Lumière Bellecour Fri. 21 8:30pm

Loving Couples by Mai Zetterling (Älskande par, 1964, 1h58, prohib. for ages -16)
Lumière Bellecour Sun. 16 6pm | Lumière Terreaux Thu. 20 7:30pm

Night Games by Mai Zetterling (Nattlek, 1966, 1h45, prohib. for ages -16)
Institut Lumière Mon. 17 2:15pm | Cinéma Opéra Wed. 19 9:30pm | Lumière Bellecour Sat. 22 8:30pm




Categories: Lecture Zen