Vilgot Sjoman

Director of 'I Am Curious (Yellow)' whose films broke the boundaries of sexual expression on screen
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The Independent Online

David Harald Vilgot Sjöman, film director, novelist and playwright: born Stockholm 2 December 1924; married (one son, two daughters); died Stockholm 9 April 2006.

The Swedish film director Vilgot Sjöman was a multi-talented artist - a novelist and playwright as well as a film director - with a penchant for exposing the morals and mores of his native country, and a desire to break existing taboos regarding the more bizarre and perverse aspects of sexuality.

He will be best remembered for the furore he created with his films that broke the boundaries of sexual expression on screen, Jag är nyfiken - gul (I Am Curious (Yellow), 1967) and its sequel, Jag är nyfiken - blå (I Am Curious (Blue), 1968). The first was banned in most of the United States, and had 11 minutes excised by the British censor, the subsequent court cases and publicity resulting in tremendous box-office returns when it was eventually screened - for 23 years it remained the most successful foreign film in the United States.

It promoted an image of Sweden as a sexually liberated country, and is considered to have been important in the relaxation of censorship for the American cinema in the Seventies and creating a climate in which such films as Midnight Cowboy could be released. Sjöman's subsequent films continued to blend social and existential themes with candid sexuality, but without as much popular success.

Born David Harald Vilgot Sjöman in Stockholm in 1924, he was the son of a builder, and he started work at 15 as a clerk with a cereal company, then served as an orderly in a prison while writing plays in his spare time, though none were produced. He then turned one of them into a novel, Lektorn ( "The Teacher", 1955), which he was asked to adapt for the screen - it became Gustaf Molander's Trots (Defiance, 1952).

In 1956 Sjöman won a scholarship to a six-month film course at UCLA (the University of California, Los Angeles), after which he worked as an apprentice on George Seaton's heady mix of war and romance The Proud and the Profane (1956) starring William Holden and Deborah Kerr. On his return to Sweden, Sjöman wrote a trenchant sociological study of the American film colony, I Hollywood ("In Hollywood", 1961).

Ingmar Bergman, who had known Sjöman professionally since the late Forties, then asked him to become his assistant on Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light, 1963), one of the director's most austere works. The influence of Bergman can be seen in Sjöman's films, particularly his depiction of bleak and dramatic landscape, and his first as a director, Alskarinnan (The Mistress, 1962), stars two of Bergman's regular actors, Bibi Andersson and Max von Sydow, with Andersson playing a young woman forced to reassess her life when the older man she loves refuses to leave his wife. It was critically well received, many seeing Sjöman as the instigator of a Swedish movement similar to France's New Wave and the post-war Italian cinema.

491 (1964) dealt with juvenile delinquency, and Klänningen (The Dress, 1964), featured rivalry between mother and daughter, both films displaying Sjöman's interest in sexual taboos while also taking a sharp look at contemporary Sweden, as did his fourth film, Syskonbädd 1782 (My Sister, My Love, 1966), which dealt with brother-sister incest. The impending marriage of the sister (Bibi Andersson) prompts the realisation that she and her brother (Per Oscarsson) are in love with each other, and by the time of the wedding, the bride is carrying her brother's child.

Then came the two films for which Sjöman is famous, which combined socio-political commitment and graphic sexual scenes. 491 had created something of a stir with censorship boards both in Sweden (where it was banned) and abroad, but I Am Curious (Yellow) was seized by US Customs and declared obscene. After a year-long, bitterly fought legal battle, it was released when a federal appeals court ruled that it was protected by the First Amendment. Even then, it was shown only in two US cities - New York and New Jersey - but it made a fortune in New York alone, and its clearance by the court, plus its enormous success, are considered to have opened the doors for the growing explicitness of American cinema in the following decade.

I Am Curious (Yellow) features newsreel footage and cinéma vérité interviews in its tale of a sociologist (Lena Nyman) who is conducting interviews with workers, women and young people about the Swedish class structure. Meanwhile she is having an affair with a young man (Börje Ahlstedt) with whom she makes love in her bedroom, in a tree, in a pond, on the grass, and in front of the Royal Palace, and it is these explicit scenes, which broke several taboos in existence at the time, that incurred such wrath. The film's sequel was titled I Am Curious (Blue) (1968) because yellow and blue are the two colours of the Swedish flag and thus they reflect Sjöman's desire to reflect aspects of Swedish life. In 1968 Sjöman also appeared in a film by his old friend Ingmar Bergman when he played the role of a television interviewer in Skammen (Shame).

The most successful of Sjöman's later films was Lyckliga Skitar (Blushing Charlie, 1970), the lyrical tale of a lorry-driver, Charlie (Bernt Lundquist), who lives a carefree life on a barge, spending his weekends drinking with jazz musician friends and chasing girls. He is also involved in left-wing politics, and Sjöman once again, as in I Am Curious (Yellow), combined politics with a frank exploration of sexuality.

The film was a hit at the London Film Festival, but most of the director's later work had limited success, blighted by his association with the more exploitable and provocative elements of his subject matter, though he claimed to be a puritan who simply wanted to avoid romantic clichés. The films included Troll (Till Sex Do Us Part, 1973), En Handfull kärlek (A Handful of Love, 1974), Tabu (Taboo, 1977), Jag rodnar (I Am Blushing, 1981) and Fallgropen (The Pitfall, 1989).

His last film was Alfred (1995), a biography of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prizes.

Tom Vallance