Early in The Girls, the three main characters, Swedish stage actresses touring with a production of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, appear on a TV show and are asked for their interpretations of the play: Liz (Bibi Andersson) says it’s about “women and war,” Marianne (Harriet Andersson) blithely proclaims it “a joke,” and Gunilla (Gunnel Lindblom) prissily insists on its seriousness. Mai Zetterling’s stridently grrl-powered picture goes for an amalgam of all three takes, only to topple into a whole Euro-art festival’s worth of strained fantasy sequences. Predictably, associations between the modern women and the ancient Greek characters they play are drawn as audiences literally snore through their performances: That Liz plays Lysistrata is just the most obvious hint that feminist outrage has not advanced much in the millenniums separating them, just as 1968 keeps insistently intruding upon the stage presentations of classic tragedy. Since none of the women deny their piggy husbands sex like their Greek counterparts, their stabs at liberation take the form of ungainly flights of fancy weaving in and out of reality: Liz envisions her death and rebirth as the cheery voice of chauvinism (Gunnar Björnstrand) presides over her funeral; Gunilla dreams of a public spanking session with her pipe-smoking husband; and a gala press conference triggers a mass striptease where the male gaze gets mercilessly skewered. Freed from the literary sources that kept her earlier Loving Couples under control, Zetterling dives waist-deep into pretentiousness: Snow and blank walls are carted around the screen like the fatigued symbols they are, and, when all fails, the director brings on the funhouse mirrors. The Girls is a confused feminist manifesto, but it’s at least never boring, and Zetterling’s militantly sardonic humor, simultaneously leery of women’s acceptance of their oppression and hopeful of their potential for change, provides an awareness of the film’s frequent ludicrousness that both lightens and sharpens her critique.
The film’s purposeful contrast between blacks and whites would be more much effective if the transfer didn’t turn it all into an overexposed blur. The sound is strong and clear.
"Lines From the Heart," a 73-minute reunion of the film’s three stars, is, strangely enough, a more affecting affair than the feature itself. Ostensibly a tribute to Mai Zetterling, it works best as the best film Henry Jaglom never made, with Harriet Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom, and Bibi Andersson looking back at their careers and lives, and being invigoratingly able to have a good laugh over all of it. Their filmographies provide the only other extra.
Check out George Cukor’s Les Girls instead.