Mai Zetterling may be known to younger viewers as the granny in The Witches, but Nicholas Roeg’s 1990 film came at the tail end of a five-decade career encompassing Swedish ingénue, British-film starlet, reluctant Hollywood blonde, and stark feminist auteur. Loving Couples, Zetterling’s directorial feature debut, sheds light on the last facet as she compresses Agnes von Krusenstjerna’s sprawling novel about women in pre-WWI Sweden into a dour canvas of female miserablism and solidarity. Zetterling centers the voluminous narrative on a trio of expecting women—aristocratic Angela (Gio Petré), spry flirt Agda (Harriet Andersson), and bitter Adele (Gunnel Lindblom)—stationed in a maternity hospital with halls out of the Overlook Hotel. Lingering dissolves densely interweave past and present as the characters, braving labor agonies, remember their old relationships; a lavish midsummer celebration at a country estate provides both the plot’s centerpiece and the main point of reference to Zetterling mentor Ingmar Bergman, a point further clinched by the grand dame appearance of Eva Dahlbeck amid the festivities. Parallels with Bergman are inescapable, from the cast to the war-of-the-sexes skirmishes to the invasive intimacy of the close-up, though Zetterling’s intensity suggests closer affinities to Von Stroheim and Strindberg, not to mention German ’70s director Margarethe von Trotta. Indeed, Zetterling’s main target is the accepted models of heterosexual marriage and family, and her closeness to the main characters lends the work its own rigor—what is sympathy for female protagonists in Bergman’s films here becomes identification. To doctor Gunnar Björnstrand, marriage is “30 seconds in Heaven, 30 years in Hell,” while Angela’s aside is even more curt: “Married, therefore unhappy.” The motto might as well be “Men always let you down,” as the camera tracks in to frame the characters in stifling compositions, yet despite hints of alternatives (“I like mixtures,” Dahlbeck says while groping Jan Malmsjö, Andersson’s queer-eyed groom), the ideology is ultimately traditional—women need babies. When Andersson walks into a hospital yard and playfully joins the chorus of wailing babies, it’s less a moment of defying immaturity than one of yearning for maternal wholeness, just as Lindblom’s witchy sterility stems from a dead fetus unceremoniously dumped into a bucket. Similarly, Loving Couples executes subversive surgery on oppressive social orders only to switch to the more comfy affirmation that the universe belongs to mothers, complete with a reassuringly gynecologic capper.
An exceptionally clear transfer highlights Zetterling’s scrupulous visual care, with textures sharp to the last hair in the leading ladies’ coifs. The sound design is no less impressive, equally accomplished during the malicious chatter of the midsummer party and the looming silence of the hospital halls.
Zetterling’s prize-winning 1962 short Wargame, not to be confused with Peter Watkins’s documentary of the same name, is included to show her sardonic view extending beyond estrogen, as she follows a couple of boys playing with guns with allegorically escalating nastiness. A booklet taken from the director’s biography gives background info on both the novel and her feelings toward it, but the only other extras are a brief stills gallery and the standard biography-filmography.
Peace may lie at the end of an umbilical cord, but these women are more interesting as anguished bitches than nurturing mamas.