“Sex and Scandinavians” – extract from Barry Forshaw’s new book

Thanks to Barry for sharing the extract below from his exciting (!) new book Sex and Film: The Erotic in British American and World Cinema.

In much the same way that Ingmar Bergman had tackled sexual themes in his much-respected arthouse classics, other directors were moving into this edgy territory. The Swedish I am Curious Yellow and its less successful sequel I am Curious Blue, directed by Vilgot Sjöman in 1967 and 1968 respectively, had supporters who were able to mount a defence based on the films’ avowed social and political agendas, with a left-wing critique of Swedish society clearly being foregrounded as much as any sexual content in the film (famously, the plump Lena Nyman’s nudity and her fondling of the actor Börje Ahlstedt’s genitals), though it was the sex that (unsurprisingly) gleaned the column inches more than the dour agitprop, the latter very much of its time. Ironically, other more contentious foreign films – which might be said to wear their exploitation credentials more overtly on their sleeves — such as Michael Miller’s West German film Pornography in Denmark (1970) and Jorgen Lhyne’s American-made Pornography: Copenhagen 1970 (1970) were passed uncut in America as they were promoted as ‘documentaries’, even though both featured unsimulated sexual intercourse (the film Pornography in Denmark was able to show the sequence as part of a visit to a film studio where the sequences were supposedly being filmed; had it been simply incorporated into the narrative of a mainstream film, it would not have been allowed.

Sex education films had long been utilised as a way of circumventing censorship from the days of such films as He and She and Man and Wife which had demonstrated sexual positions (and even cunnilingus and fellatio), talked about dispassionately by clearly serious (it seemed) sexual experts. But by the time of Torgny Wickman’s Language of Love (1969), the treatment of sexual dysfunction was routinely included in unblushing fashion, the apparent seriousness underlined by the narration of a writer had worked on the Alfred Kinsey reports, Dr Wardell Pomeroy. These films (ran the defence) had a point to make beyond titillation, and were thus more defensible than popular entertainment which simply invited the audience to enjoy the carnal activity on offer.

A constant source of annoyance – or wry acceptance – among Swedes visiting Great Britain is the fondly-held, slightly envious British notion (also nurtured by Americans) of Sweden as a fount of sexual liberation and erotic adventure; a land without inhibitions where all forms of erotic behaviour are tolerated, and saunas are used more creatively than simply to open the pores of the skin. Much of this perception stems from the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which was by no means a solely Swedish phenomenon. The writer Håkan Nesser is fond of nailing one particular culprit in this identification of unbuttoned sexuality with the Swedes: the great international success of the 1967 film I Am Curious Yellow (as mentioned above), which, though largely a dispiriting (and would-be humorous) left-wing political tract, famously featured a deal of nudity and startling sexual scenes. According to Nesser, the massive international success and censorship furore surrounding this film (largely because of its relatively minimal erotic content) established a template in the minds of non-Swedes for the country; a template, what’s more, which hardly told the whole story. Swedes, according to Nesser, have been living with this lazy cliché ever since. But other, more prestigious, Swedish filmmakers might have been said to have contributed to this perception of Nordic carnality, notably the man many cinéastes consider to be non-pareil, Ingmar Bergman. His mid-period masterpiece Summer with Monika (1952) enjoyed a great deal of attention not only for its undeniably impressive cinematic qualities, but for a scene in which a nubile Harriet Anderson removed her sweater – at a time when actresses kept their bodies largely covered. Later Bergman films such as The Silence (1963) further expanded the sexual parameters with actress (and then-Bergman muse) Ingrid Thulin in a particularly joyless masturbation scene, while a young couple have sex in a cinema in a sequence that was considered very graphic that time (despite the impeccable reputation of the director, The Silence encountered much crass tampering by censors at the time – and, as with most such storms-in-teacups occasioned by moral guardians, the film’s sexual candour is mainstream today).

Interestingly, this perception of Scandinavia as a land of erotic lotus-eaters has not been explored in Nordic crime fiction to any great extent (no doubt because native writers know the truth behind such erroneous perceptions), although Karin Alvtegen – while utilising the form of the traditional ‘cosy’ mystery – incorporates audacious sexual elements into her narrative. The Icelandic Yrsa Sigurđardóttir, a woman not afraid to confront the shibboleths of her society, utilises asphyxiation for sexual ends in Last Rituals. The author, of course, who most fully explored the sexual arena was the late Stieg Larsson, whose unblushing and graphic descriptions of sexual acts have caused much controversy (not least inspiring debates over whether or not the author’s unflinching – and repeated – descriptions of sexual abuse are exploitative or feminist). Interestingly, the duo who are the inspiration behind much current Scandinavian crime fiction, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, are notably chaste and discreet in their treatment of sex. Regarding other areas of sexual politics (including homosexuality), certain Scandinavian writers have been much more upfront – notably Anne Holt with her lesbian protagonist Hanne Wilhelmsen – although the character’s sexuality is utilised as a means of creating her personality rather than introducing any erotic elements. If the Nordic Noir novel may be considered as subversive of a generic form (which is ostensibly concerned with the restoration of the status quo), it is not so in the sexual arena (despite occasionally addressing gender issues) but in the political field.

Sex and Film: The Erotic in British American and World Cinema by Barry Forshaw is published by Palgrave Macmillan



Filed under Scandinavian crime fiction

2 responses to ““Sex and Scandinavians” – extract from Barry Forshaw’s new book

  1. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen

    This should certainly be seen by as many as possible, Barry. It is your text! And we are grateful.

  2. Barry Forshaw

    Jakob Thanks! OK if I disseminate this post -or do you want it just for NNBC members? Quite understand if you do! Barry  Barry Forshaw~The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction/Euro Noir/British Crime Writing/British Gothic Cinema/Death in a Cold Climate/British Crime Film/Nordic Noir/Italian Cinema/Sex and Film/BFI War of the Worlds/Crime Time


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