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I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967)

I Am Curious (Blue) (1968)

The Criterion Collection

Starring Lena Nyman, Börje Ahlstedt and Vilgot Sjöman

Directed by Vilgot Sjöman

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Vilgot Sjöman's experimental fusion of sex and politics, I Am Curious (Yellow), is uniquely notorious amongst European art films. Already controversial in its native Sweden and throughout Europe for its frank leftist criticism of Democratic Socialism, its 1969 release in the U.S. provoked an outrage of a different kind: the movie's explicit nudity and sexual situations made it the focus of a censorship campaign and, subsequently, a key anti-obscenity Supreme Court case.

The movie's distributor, Grove Press, was something of a Supreme Court regular, having previously published historically significant banned books like Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover. Grove's experienced publicity machine translated the controversy over the movie into box office manna, making I Am Curious (Yellow) the highest grossing foreign film in the U.S. for the next 25 years.

While this background may make Sjöman's movie important to film fans, legal scholars, and free speech advocates, it doesn't necessarily mean that the film sparkles with narrative quality. I Am Curious (Yellow), in fact, is certain to disappoint most audiences. Its unorthodox style — framing documentary material within a shifting fictional context — is sure to alienate mainstream viewers, and even those enticed by the sex scenes may be left cold: with the exception of one scene, there's nothing you can't see on Cinemax past 10 p.m., and, even then, the few moments of generous flesh are surrounded on all sides by nearly two hours of reflexive self-comment and political soul searching.

For fans of experimental cinema, however, I Am Curious (Yellow) might well feel refreshing. Unlike the more aggressively pretentious art films, Sjöman's most famous movie is fairly accessible, features a charismatic young star (Lena Nyman), is shot in beautiful black and white, and tempers its serious subject matter (which includes interviews with Martin Luther King, Jr., among others) with a spirit of casual playfulness. Sjöman's narrative conceit — that the film, part fiction, part documentary, is about the making of itself — never feels ponderous. As Lena interviews Labor Party members about Sweden's stubborn class society, struggles with her tense director's moods, or frolics nakedly with her lover Börje, the film's giant leaps of subject and perspective seem effortless and organic, capturing a feeling of counterculture youth rather than impressing elliptical metaphors upon the viewer.

A year later Sjöman released a companion film, I Am Curious (Blue), edited from unused footage and reshoots, telling Lena's same story of pouting self-discovery with different material (for example, her political interests in this version relate to the state prison system and Sweden's defense policy of non-violence). Although (Blue) lacks the adventurous newness of its predecessor, it also carries a breezy charm and irreverent perspective, and provides a diverting alternate angle of Lena's journey. This film also features a fine performance by Gunnel Broström and an arresting performance of the folk song, "Thorsten."

As usual, Criterion presents both features in this two-disc set in great looking transfers (both in 1.33:1 full-frame OAR). The audio for both films is monaural (Swedish with optional English subtitles), and each is accompanied by an optional, sporadic commentary by Sjöman. On Disc One, I Am Curious (Yellow) begins with a five-minute introduction by Sjöman, and is supplemented by a short featurette, "The Battle for I Am Curious (Yellow)," and excerpts from trial transcripts. The best extra feature on this disc, however, is a new interview with Grove publisher Barney Rosset and attorney Edward de Grazia, during which the two aging free-speech crusaders reminisce about the movie's court struggles and the ironic impact the film's success had on the film industry: that in paving the way for greater acceptance of sexually explicit films, similar art films were quickly forsaken in favor of pornography. On Disc Two, accompanying I Am Curious (Blue), are one deleted scene from the film and half an hour of excerpts from the Swedish television production "Sjöman '92." The liner notes include an essay by critic Gary Giddins and excerpts from a 1968 print interview with the director.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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