Loving Couples: Life Before Birth

THE LOVING… THE HATING… THE CHEATING… THE DESIRING… THE BEST AND WORST IN MAN AND WOMAN.

In the early 1960s, Mai Zetterling had achieved fame as an actress in Swedish films, and in Britain where she had moved in the late 1940s. Her experiences from both film cultures were deep and rich. This was when she moved behind the camera, directing documentaries and a short film that earned an award at the Venice film festival. The time was right for her feature debut and it became Loving Couples, a film that gained international attention. Entered into the Cannes festival, Loving Couples was described by the influential critic Kenneth Tynan as ”one of the most ambitious debuts since Citizen Kane”. It remains one of Zetterling’s best.

Sharing a maternity ward
In 1915, three women are patients at the same maternity ward in Stockholm: Angela von Pahlen (Gio Petré), Adèle Holmström (Gunnel Lindblom) and Agda (Harriet Andersson). They’re all related to each other, either by blood or other circumstances. Through flashbacks, the audience learn the background and history of these women. We meet Angela as a child, cared for by her aunt (Anita Björk) after the death of her father. At the age of 18, Angela is sent to a boarding school where she learns that other women find her sexually attractive. We find out that Adéle experienced a string of disappointments that cemented her hatred of men, marriage and her station in life.

And then there’s Agda, a young woman who’s always relied on singing and a simplistic outlook; in a flashback, we see her as a young girl being treated to cake by an older man (Åke Grönberg) whose intentions are obvious… but not to Agda.

A desire to challenge the audience
Loving Couples
was based on a series of novels by Agnes von Krusenstjerna, published in the 1930s, and the critics were somewhat divided on how successful of an adaptation the film was. In a 1965 article, the legendary Swedish publisher Olof Lagercrantz, who was an authority on von Krusenstjerna’s writings, accused Zetterling of making the movie too realistic, to a grotesque extent even, something the author herself never believed in when she was writing her stories. In his mind, there was no need to put sensitive ingredients on display because we understand their presence anyway. But Zetterling was a modern filmmaker who wanted to challenge the audience. Since the movie took place many decades before her time, she clearly wanted to make sure Loving Couples didn’t come across as a stodgy costume drama, but looked relevant primarily to women in the 1960s.

As we follow these women through their lives, we watch them experience love and sorrow, the misery of the class society and a constant threat posed by men who desire them. The film takes place almost entirely before the outbreak of the war, but there’s no shortage of drama, vividly captured by cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Sharp and funny (with more rambling moments in the last half-hour), the film has brilliant performances by a superb cast, including Lindblom as the eternally bitter Adèle, Gunnar Björnstrand as a cynical doctor and Jan Malmsjö as a fun-loving painter.

At the time of the premiere, many reviews made a big deal out of Ingmar Bergman’s obvious influence on the film (there’s no getting around Brink of Life) and Nykvist’s contribution. But Zetterling was her own woman, confidently proving that she was a force to reckon with.

Loving Couples 1964-Sweden. 118 min. B/W. Produced by Göran Lindgren, Rune Waldekranz. Directed by Mai Zetterling. Screenplay: Mai Zetterling, David Hughes. Novels: Agnes von Krusenstjerna. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist. Cast: Harriet Andersson (Agda), Gunnel Lindblom (Adèle Holmström), Gio Petré (Angela von Pahlen), Anita Björk, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jan Malmsjö… Heinz Hopf, Eva Dahlbeck, Inga Landgré, Margit Carlqvist, Isa Quensel, Lissi Alandh, Åke Grönberg, Henrik Schildt, Meta Velander.

Trivia: Original title: Älskande par. 

Last word: “I suppose the crux is that my film was made in Sweden for a primarily Swedish audience. We are Protestants and we don’t have the problems which Catholic countries have. That’s really what it boils down to, I’m afraid.” (Zetterling on the commotion the film caused in Venice, “A Cinema of Obsession”)

 

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