Wednesday, 27 November 2013
By the mid-60s it was becoming obvious that the Hollywood Production Code was no longer viable and it was replaced by a ratings system. As an afterthought the Motion Picture Association of America added an additional rating, the “X” rating. For various reasons (possibly to do with their reluctance to be seen as active censors) the “X” rating was unofficial and left to the discretion of distributors.
At the same time it was becoming obvious that sooner or later sex was going to break out into mainstream movies. Plenty of movies had dealt with sex obliquely or peripherally but eventually it was going to be dealt with directly. Sex is too interesting a part of the human experience to be shunted off to one side indefinitely.
Although it was most certainly not their intention, in retrospect it is clear that the MPAA’s “X” rating had finally opened the door. In 1968 two American sexploitation movies would begin the process of kicking that door wide open - Russ Meyer’s Vixen and Joe Sarno’s Inga.
Something that wasn’t clear at the time was that if a film-maker was going to tackle sex directly and intelligently that film-maker was more likely to come from the shadowy world of the grindhouses rather than from the mainstream. In general mainstream movie-makers, both then and now, had the unfortunate tendency to take sex much too seriously and try to make it much too arty. They also were never going to be able to realise that if you want to make a movie about sex it has to be genuinely erotic. A movie about sex that lacks an erotic charge is like a movie about romance that isn’t romantic, or a suspense movie that isn’t suspenseful. Inga in fact provides the basic template for all future serious movies about sex - it has a strong narrative structure (a feature that always distinguished Sarno’s exploitation movies), it’s very character-driven, the emphasis is on sex as an emotional experience and it’s sexy without being tacky. And, not surprisingly, it made a great deal of money.
The setup is typically Sarno. We have an emotional/sexual situation that seems stable but is in reality a ticking bomb, and then someone comes along and lights the fuse.
Greta (Monica Strömmerstedt) is a 33-year-old widow who has been having a somewhat one-sided relationship with a much younger man named Karl (Casten Lassen). Karl is an aspiring writer. He is selfish, self-centred and shallow but he is also young and very good-looking. Greta is hopelessly in love with him. Karl is very fond of Greta’s money. Unfortunately Greta is nowhere near as wealthy as she would like Karl to think. In fact she is partly dependent financially on her late husband’s friends Einar Nilsson (Thomas Ungewitter) and Einar’s sister Sigrid (Sissi Kaiser). Karl is a very expensive boy-toy to maintain and Greta is starting to feel the strain. She is also keenly and painfully aware that although she is still a beautiful woman she is in her mid-thirties and the clock is ticking.
Sigrid has a problem as well. The problem of what to do about her brother Einar. Einar is a wealthy, successful and highly respected editor who is very much at home in the very cultured and rather artistic circles in which he and Sigrid move. He is in early middle age but is still a rather handsome man. But Einar has a taste for young girlfriends. Very young girlfriends. Not young enough to cause any legal problems or scandals but young enough to cause plenty of other headaches. Teenage girls soon become bored with middle-aged lovers and Einar always gets hurt. And humiliated. And made to look a fool. Even worse he has very poor judgment in the girls he chooses and their behaviour causes constant embarrassment and anxiety to Sigrid.
Sigrid is the elder sibling and she is fiercely protective of her brother. She now comes up with a plan. Einar generally has no interest in women of Greta’s age but he has always had a bit of a thing for her, and she is still an extremely attractive woman. Most importantly Greta is the sort of woman who could move comfortably in Einar’s world. Greta is unimpressed by Sigrid’s idea until Sigrid lays her cards on the table. Greta needs the financial support she gets from Sigrid and that money could disappear if Greta refuses. On the other hand if Greta does agree to manoeuvre herself into being Einar’s concubine the financial support could become rather more lucrative.
Greta’s life is complicated enough but it’s going to get very much more complicated when she finds herself having to act as substitute mother for her 17-year-old niece Inga (Marie Liljedahl). Inga is not your average 17-year-old girl. She is a quiet, studious, serious-minded girl with a taste for the classics and a passion for opera. She is intelligent, well-educated and highly cultured. Her idea of a good time is to curl up with a volume of Strindberg’s plays. Greta was initially less than enthusiastic about having Inga come to live with her but now she’s starting to see a way in which Inga could solve her problems for her. The key to her plan is that Inga combines her serious nature and highbrow tastes with the body of a 17-year-old sexbomb. Wouldn’t that make her the ideal mistress for Einar? Sigrid would be delighted by Inga’s intelligence and civilised behaviour. This is a girl who would not cause any embarrassments at dinner parties. Einar would have himself a stunning little nymphet as a bed partner. Greta’s services as Einar’s official mistress would no longer be required so she could concentrate on her boy-toy. Everyone would be happy. And for creating such universal happiness surely Sigrid would be more than willing to pay Greta generously for her services as procuress. Sigrid sees the logic in Greta’s scheme and the deal is cut. There’s just one tiny detail Greta has overlooked. She hasn’t thought it necessary to consult Inga about her feelings in regard to this splendid plan. And a beautiful teenage girl just starting to discover her sexuality is just the very thing to light the fuse to explode that ticking bomb I mentioned earlier.
While the awakening of a teenage girl’s sexuality is clearly going to be potential commercial dynamite it’s subject matter liberally littered with extremely dangerous pitfalls if you happen to be a writer-director who wants to make a serious and intelligent movie that will be artistically successful without being sleazy. Sarno happened to be that kind of writer-director, and with this movie he was making a bold move to capture both the exploitation markets and the European art-house markets.
The chief danger of course is that if you veer too much one way you will end up with a movie that is tacky and exploitative while if you try too hard to be serious and tasteful you can end up diluting the erotic charge. And given that the central theme is the emotionally and sexually explosive effects of Inga’s awakening the erotic charge has to be there, otherwise there’s absolutely no point to the movie. In fact there was never any serious cause for concern. Sarno was always able to get that kind of balance right. And he was always able to ratchet up the eroticism without ever losing sight of his main preoccupation - that sex always has emotional consequences. Greta loses sight of that truth while Inga must learn it quickly.
There is also the very real danger of drifting into Lolita territory and if that happens shipwreck is almost inevitable. Inga navigates these waters quite safely, keeping well away from those dangerous reefs. Lolita was a child. Inga, for all her youth and innocence, is unquestionably a woman. That’s really the whole point. Greta’s miscalculation is based on her failure to appreciate that fact.
Sarno, as usual, manages to deal with serious issues without losing his lightness of touch. While serious European art-house directors were remarkably successful at making erotic movies that are mind-numbingly dull and miserable Sarno was unlikely ever to commit such an error. Sarno was unafraid of the darker sides and consequences of sexuality but he had a certain fundamental optimism. People make mistakes but sometimes they do learn from them. Sex is powerful because it’s both dangerous and joyous.
Sarno gets fine performances from a cast composed of a mixture of stage actors, film actors and complete newcomers. But then he always had the ability to get the emotional intensity he wanted from his casts. As in most of his movies the women get the more complex and demanding rôles. Monica Strömmerstedt is wonderfully edgy as Greta. She always seems on the verge of psychological disintegration, which of course she is. Despite the appallingly manipulative and destructive (and self-destructive) behaviours in which she indulges we can never quite bring ourselves to despise her. Sarno had little interest in straightforward heroes or villains. He wanted characters who made disastrous mistakes not because they were evil but because they succumbed to very human weaknesses. Strömmerstedt captures Greta’s desperation exceptionally well.
Marie Liljedahl is the crucial ingredient. She had to be both innocent enough and sexual enough to be convincing without crossing over into disturbing territory and she strikes the perfect balance.
Visually the movie looks like what it is - a blending of European and American sensibilities. It was shot in black-and-white, always Sarno’s preferred medium. The danger was that the Swedish locations might have looked too bleak in black-and-white but the movie manages to be both stark and beautiful. The budget was considerably larger than usual for a Sarno film and the extra production values are apparent.
The sex scenes were shot the way Sarno always shot them, with the emphasis on emotions rather than body parts. While the actual sexual content is tame by later standards the intensity that Sarno always strived for makes this movie far more erotic than what passes for erotica these days. This being 1967 it goes without saying that the women look like women rather than pornstars. The nudity is far from explicit but Marie Liljedahl certainly sizzles.
Retro-Seduction Cinema have done their usual splendid job with the DVD, with an excellent transfer offering both the original Swedish version and the English dubbed version. The extras include a commentary track featuring both Joe Sarno and his wife and perennial collaborator Peggy. One of the more interesting, and startling, revelations on this commentary track is that the sex scenes were real rather than simulated. Even Marie Liljedahl’s solo performance was apparently quite real. This would have been quite unusual even in fully-fledged early 70s soft porn; for a film shot in 1967 it’s extraordinarily bold.
Inga tries to be both an art movie and a sex movie and in general the results are remarkably successful. Highly recommended.