..

I AM CURIOUS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Lena Nyman, Borje Ahlstedt, Vilgot Sjoman
Director:  Vilgot Sjoman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  121 Minutes (Yellow), 107 Minutes (Blue)
Release Date:  March 11, 2003

“Do we have a class system in Sweden?”

“It depends on the people.  Undress them, and they’re all the same.  Dress them, and you have a class system.”

Film (both versions) ***

Curiosity doesn’t always kill the cat, but it can stir up a lot of trouble in other ways.  When Vilgot Sjoman’s I Am Curious – Yellow first made its way across the seas to the United States in 1967, it was seized by Customs, who offered to destroy it for the American distributors in order to avoid hefty legal matters!  The battle over the film made it all the way to the Supreme Court, and by the time it was finally allowed to be shown, it had become the first movie to really benefit from controversy and bad publicity.  The audience became equally curious as the film made headlines for its explicit sexual content.

It changed the face of American film distribution, yet over the years, it seems to have fallen through the cracks of time.  Why do some controversial films like Last Tango in Paris become indelible parts of our culture, while some like I Am Curious – Yellow become almost forgotten?

The bitter truth is probably obvious…Sjoman’s film isn’t as good as Bertolucci’s.  And while there are some surprising sexual scenes in I Am Curious – Yellow, they are often solemn and flatly de-eroticized.  Sjoman’s vision is a bit self-conscious and too “arty” for its own good, drawing less from the traditions of Bergman and more on the experimentation of Godard, but with less focus and perhaps too much ambition.  And if people don’t remember this film very well, they almost never seem to remember that a companion film, I Am Curious – Blue, ever existed, even though Sjoman playfully boasts at the opening that it’s the only film to come in TWO versions.

The two versions came about because Sjoman realized he had enough material for two films to cover similar grounds, but with different tones and emphases.  Yellow is the more ambitious and political, while Blue feels more relaxed and focused on the behind-the-scenes of the film within a film concept.  Both employ a share of sexual discovery for the main character, but in both cases, it’s not the real focus of the films (despite the controversy).

That character is Lena (Nyman…all characters keep their names in these films), whom we are first introduced to when a woman catches her and director Sjoman making out in an elevator!  She is starring in Sjoman’s political documentary, which covers everything from the class system to the military to Martin Luther King’s penchant for non-violence.  Though a bit empty headed, Lena is curious, and tries to make the most of her position as interviewer.  She keeps a filing system in her bedroom to keep all of her information straight, but still asks some silly questions like whether it’s fair that a doctor or architect earns more than a restaurant worker!

Behind the scenes, she is having an affair with Sjoman.  In the “movie”, she is falling for the character of Borje (Ahlstedt).  The lines between film and fantasy get obscure, as behind the scenes, she is also falling for Borje the actor, much to the dissatisfaction of Sjoman!  At one point, after learning of Borje’s marriage, she retires to the country for some quiet and self discipline…yet when she struggles to complete a yoga exercise, the film crew, all appearing as themselves, jump in to help out.

It’s not confusing, but sometimes deliberately vague of purpose, as it’s hard to see any reason for the film’s structure other than Sjoman COULD do it that way.  There is frequently a playful tone to it all, as when narration invites the audience to guess what’s in Lena’s bag and offers prizes to the winners. 

Lena is an interesting if somewhat shallow character in both films.  Like the movie itself, she has ambitions that are maybe too grand for her.  In trying sometimes to seem smarter than she is, she only appears more foolish.  Yet her emotions are pure, and we feel for her throughout as she enjoys love, suffers heartbreak, and endures humiliation.  The real-life Lena seemed to carve out a reputation for herself by her appearance in Yellow, because in Blue, we are introduced to some of her “fan mail”.  It ain’t pretty.

Okay, so now you’re probably wondering about the sex.  Well, it’s there in a few key scenes.  As mentioned, it IS a bit surprising what you see, though it may not be as much as you think you’ll see.  Sjoman’s tone, much as Godard’s was in Contempt, is flatly un-erotic.  And Lena and Borje, while not unattractive, aren’t typical of the kind of couple you’d expect to see so openly engaged on the screen.

The movies are flawed, but not uninteresting.  Yellow does falter a bit with its constant political questioning that leads nowhere, but both movies work best in playful mode and when centering on Lena.  If Sjoman had narrowed his scope a little bit, these might have been great films and better remembered than merely good and interesting ones.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Why Yellow and BlueBecause those are the colors of the Swedish flag. 

Video ***

Considering most previous prints of this movie were in horrendous shape, Criterions new high definition transfers are quite revealing.  Though inexpensively shot, the black and white imagery comes across professionally, with fairly good detail levels and very little in the way of grain or print debris.  The digital clean up is definitely appreciated.

Audio **

The audio doesn’t always seem well recorded, again, probably owing to the movie’s budget, but it doesn’t matter much because of the subtitling.  You can just tell in certain points that the levels weren’t set right, or that the microphones were too far away from their subject matter.  Apart from that, dynamic range is fairly mid-level, given the nature of the movie.  Bits of background noise are evident but minimal, and again, are probably inherent in the original recording and not a reflection of the DVD.

Features ****

Criterion didn’t miss a step in this department.  Yellow features a new introduction by Vilgo Sjoman, who also introduces the trailer and provides commentary on selected scenes from the film reading from his director’s diary.  There is a brand new interview with publisher Barney Rosset and attorney Edward de Grazia over the film’s controversy, plus a more involved featurette, The Battle for I Am Curious – Yellow, which documents the struggles the film had to even see the light of day in the States, and how laws and views regarding pornography were altered as a result.  There is also a selection of excerpts from the trial over the movie, and a written essay by critic Gary Giddins.

Blue contains more select scene commentary from Sjoman and his diary, plus excerpts from a 1992 Swedish television documentary he made about himself, one deleted scene with Sjoman’s introduction, and a printed interview with Sjoman from 1968.  A solid and supportive supplementary package!

Summary:

Criterion has assembled the ultimate package for the curious, by placing both of Vilgot Sjoman’s I Am Curious movies together in a handsome two disc set generously adorned with extras.  Once controversial then later almost forgotten, this double DVD will give modern audiences a chance to rediscover these influential pictures and judge for themselves.