Sex, lies and unsatisfied women

An article by
Anna Håkansson, culture writer and editor at the Swedish Film Institute’s Regions, Children & Youth Division

Lina Maria Mannheimer’s documentary Mating had its Swedish cinematic release in March. The film is very much an intimate portrait of two young adults in the process of learning about relationships in this digitally brave new world of ours.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is the way in which the main characters show such articulate candour when discussing sex and love. When they first meet, Edvin is still a virgin, while Naomi is more sexually experienced. Wearing a T-shirt from Swedish sexual health organisation RFSU, Naomi casts an ironic smirk as Edvin explains in graphic detail how he intends to take her when they meet. With her constant and explicit manner of expressing her sexual desire, Naomi constitutes something as rare and unusual in Swedish film history as a sexually active female subject.

Bearing in mind how intimately interlinked Swedish film history is with the notion of Swedish sin, it is remarkable – to say the least – that women who so openly express themselves around and/or practise sex are so few. Naked, liberated women – from Ulla Jacobsson in One Summer of Happiness (Arne Mattsson, 1951), to Harriet Andersson in Summer with Monika (Ingmar Bergman, 1953), to Lena Nyman in I am Curious (Yellow) (Vilgot Sjöman, 1967) – still do serve as the motivating factor behind how the international world perceives the Swedish woman and her sexuality, a notion still alive and well today. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden’s most internationally renowned filmmaker, is perhaps also the director whose work featured the highest occurrence of sexually gregarious women. Monika’s promiscuity in Summer with Monika still wreaks havoc at school screenings of the film today. That famed look in Monika’s eyes, as she stares straight into the camera after having abandoned both Harry and her newborn child to satiate herself with other men, has gone down in cinematic history. Again in The Silence (1963), which miraculously reached the Swedish cinematic public without any censorship whatsoever and dared to present sex scenes containing both masturbation and incest. The film marked a turning point in the history of Swedish film censorship and paved the way for those bold souls who followed in its wake. One of these was Torgny Wickman’s porno (poorly) disguised as a sexual education film entitled Language of Love (1969). In her review in Swedish broadsheet Dagens Nyheter, Kerstin Vinterhed drew attention to the fact that the film was hardly liberal in all aspects. ‘Another line of bullshit that was even more bewildering was that age-old misconception that women and girls are less sexual than men. Why on earth is this mistruth constantly and consistently reiterated? How can such lines squeeze their way into an otherwise entirely enlightened film?’

From a film history perspective, loose women are anything but uncommon. Courtesans, man-eaters, femmes fatales and seductresses – many are the names – were alluring right from the very first films made. Ladies of pleasure and fallen women who came between the faithful wife and her husband. In Gustaf Molander’s Sin (1928), Gina Marès played the sinister temptress in the role of relationship-wrecking actress Henriette Mauclerc. What differentiates this portrait from those we see today is mainly that these women were doomed for failure, either due to a quick and painful death or the relationship’s eternal victory. And so was the tale until recently.

In Mai Zetterling’s The Girls (1968), Aristophane’s play Lysistrata becomes the screen through which the women’s attempt at freedom is filtered. The film centres in on a group of actors played by the likes of Harriet Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom and Bibi Andersson, who are on tour with a stage performance of the play. Through Lysistrata, they re-evaluate their relationships to the men in their lives in general and patriarchal, sexist structures in particular. Just as in the play, the film expresses the absurdity of the heterosexual premise, as well as the solution provided by refusing to perform in sexual situations. In this regard, this film has quite a deal in common with Vilgot Sjöman’s I am Curious (Yellow). This film depicts Lena Nyman’s relationship with Börje Ahlstedt’s unfaithful high-flyer, characterised by symbolic sex scenes that have gone down in Swedish film history, as being the only thing standing between Lena and political and mental emancipation. But even though Nyman’s character fantasises about both shooting and castrating Ahlstedt, the relationship endures.

In the 21st century, the growing queer movement has contributed in a way that the sexual revolution of the late 1960s failed, and women are finally able to climax. In 2009 Dirty Diaries arrived on the scene, 13 individual erotic short films which set out to redefine pornography, making it queer, feminist and innovative. Mia Engberg, who was the co-producer alongside Göran Olsson, had already directed erotic short Selma & Sofie (2002) seven years prior. A few of the people involved in the making of Dirty Diaries are today central filmmaking figures in the world of Swedish film production. In 2018 and 2019 alone, three of these individuals released new films. Ingrid Ryberg with An Army of Lovers, Pella Kågerman with Aniara and Mia Engberg with Lucky One. In another of Kågerman’s films, Body Contact, Axel Petersén appears. His The Real Estate (co-directed with Måns Månsson) was in competition at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. The film contains something as rare as an oral sex scene between Nojet (Léonore Ekstrand), a 68-year-old woman who recently inherited an entire apartment building, as she straddles the face of her younger lover. Similar scenes are not common throughout Swedish film history, at least when it comes to men performing oral sex on women.

When women do reach sexual satisfaction, it is often in constellations outside of the heterosexual universe. Not even in sexually explicit The Heart, Fanni Metelius’ debut film from 2018, does it go particularly well for the heterosexually oriented duo. In this film, the primary conflict is based on the fact that the man Mika loves enters a depression, losing his interest in sex. The film ends with her learning to satisfy herself and enjoy other types of connections, based on female community.

For the heterosexual, sexually-starved woman, it is always best to take matters into her own hands.

(Published in October 2019, originally published in Swedish in March 2019)

Horny women take centre stage in a film list compiled by Anna Håkansson

  • Danish-Swedish passionate drama, in which the sexual appetite of a woman in the midst of a mid-life crisis reaches new monstrous heights. When Trine Dyrholm’s magnificently frustrated child advocate attorney sinks her teeth into her delicate stepson, she destroys not only the warped family constellation’s perfect bourgeois façade but also our preconceptions of power, gender and sexuality.

  • Danish actress Agnes Nyrup-Christensen played Charlotte, the countess who covets Jens the stableman, played by director Paul Welander himself, in turn rejecting the proposals of her rich suitors. The very first time Jens enters the frame, she throws herself at him, horsewhip at the ready. She unabashedly snogs him on horse-rides and sneaks out in nothing more than her nightgown to lure him into wild romps. Once exposed, they are banished from her castle. Impoverished outlaws, the roles soon shift. As is to be expected, the ending involves her quick and painful death.

  • Ali Abbasi’s film based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s short story depicts customs official Tina, a role that won Eva Melander a Swedish Guldbagge Award, discovering both her own true identity and sexuality when encountering her conspecific Vore. Having lived a life in which she did not understand who she was, she literally penetrates her way to sexual liberation and insight. Rarely before has a Swedish film depicted the euphoria of an orgasm as authentically as here, embellished with naked forest sprints and wild skinny-dipping.

  • Marika Lagercrantz’s sexually-demanding schoolteacher Viola in Bo Widerberg’s final film will not go down in history for having inspired sympathy in its cinematic audience. Her sexual appetite for young student Stig, played by Widerberg’s son Johan, increases at the same rate as her hard-drinking, music-loving husband’s emasculation. When the young lover begins to sympathise with her husband, Viola forces him to have sex with her. The film ends with Stig, in a final emancipatory victory gesture, flashing his genitals at Viola at the graduation ceremony in the church before breaking into the classroom and stealing her set of encyclopaedias. The wisdom of adulthood is thus transmitted.

  • Ruth Vega Fernandez plays Mia, a woman who lives a perfect life in a heterosexual relationship, when she meets her father’s new girlfriend’s daughter Frida (Liv Mjönes) at a family dinner. An irresistible attraction develops, and we witness two women play out their sexual desires in scenes that Swedish newspaper Expressen labelled ‘hot and bold’. The high pulse, however, failed to reach Swedish broadsheet Svenska Dagbladet’s reviewer, who called the film ‘persuasive but cool’.

  • Maria Bonnevie’s Dina plays cello och fucks with the same sort of frenetic desire, dismissing co-star Gérard Depardieu’s genitals as ‘nothing like a horse’s’ in this Norwegian-Danish-German-French-Swedish production directed by Dane Ole Bornedal, who previously directed successful thriller Nightwatch (1994). According to Swedish paper Nöjesguiden’s review, we are confronted with a woman who ‘rides, reckons and smokes like a man and is a wild animal in the bedroom – egotistical, uninhibited and demanding’.

  • The role of Lisbeth Salander was not only Noomi Rapace’s major international breakthrough, but also delivered a depiction of a woman who broke all imaginable norms. Not only is she practically immortal and masters martial arts and computers at a level of utterly staggering dexterity, she also takes an instrumental approach to her own sexual satisfaction, employing both men and women to achieve it.

  • Director Fanni Metelius herself played the leading role of Mika, in a film depicting something seldom shown – a woman with a greater sexual appetite than a man. The film proposes the notion of embracing one’s own body and seeking strength in the female community surrounding us. In an interview with website Nordic Women in Film, Metelius explained that with this film, she wanted to show that ‘intimacy and sexual desire can’t be created by demands and performance. I want to show that you can find intimacy everywhere ¬– from the feel of the sun on your skin to holding a baby in your arms, or from just sitting and watching a film with someone’.”.