Thursday, January 31, 2008

I Am Curious Yellow

Because I Am Curious Yellow was seized by customs and held on trial in the U.S. for sexual obscenity, it has the reputation (at least among my peers) of a groundbreaking pornography, a graphic, sexual movie. This is completely unfair to the film, which is a well-meaning, often clumsy, and honest portrayal of a young woman's search for identity in the confusing political landscape of 1960s Sweden. Some of the images in the film were no doubt shocking to pre-Deep Throat America, but, having grown up in the wake of the porn industry and most modern ad campaigns, these same images feel sweet, charming, and human to my modern eyes. Indeed, the thought of anyone referring to the sex in the movie as "obscene" is laughable now. The opposite is true; it's decent.

If anything's obscene about I Am Curious, it's the convoluted editing. The film is all over the place, with half-baked, ham-fisted conceits awkwardly imposed onto the rather involving character study. A parody of a game show, where viewers of the film are invited to guess what's inside a bag for the chance to win some outlandish (and hilarious, I guess) prizes, recurs throughout the film. There are non-diagetic references to the Stockholm censorship board's reaction to an in-movie confession and a few cuts to a phony newscaster serving as a narrator. It feels very Buñuel-lite; it's meant to be cheeky and witty, but these unclever digressions are distracting at best.

At first, the movie's so fractured, it's even hard to tell which pieces of the film are the digressions; it begins as a film-within-a-film story, during which the director, Vilgot Sjöman, appears as himself and frets in voice over about falling in love with his leading lady, Lena. Bergman, the viewer is told, always advised against this, and as the master's name is invoked, it seems like the movie might be turning into a forebear of a sub-par, navel-gazing Woody Allen film. You know, the one about the insecure director who wants to sleep with his brazenly sexual leading lady, but can't quite handle her own insecurities and peccadilloes?

Slowly, thankfully, the film's scope widens. Lena, in an attempt to learn more about politics, interviews Swedes on the street about a variety of topics pertaining to (then)contemporary Swedish life. She asks them if Sweden has a class system or if women have equal rights in Sweden, badgers vacationers back from a trip to Spain about Franco's dictatorship, and confronts some old-guard Liberals about their own conservative views. This is fascinating, if just for its time-capsule-like revelation of a specific culture at a specific time. If some of the more timely references were lost on me, it served only to spark my own curiosity.

When the movie begins to focus on Lena's struggle to find her identity, though, it's very near great. Lena Nyman, as both herself and the fictional Lena (the blurring of the two isn't very interesting), is magnificent here, accurately conveying the interrelationship of confusion and anger, passion and despair. Her trials are familiar--an affair with a man who won't commit, an absent mother, a craven, intimidated father--but the stark nakedness (literal and figurative) of their execution here works. Late in the movie, Lena unleashes rage at her father, at her lover, at Franco, even, and, as she's knocking over the furniture and bookcases in her room a la Charles Foster Kane, it's undeniably moving. She's a liberated woman, she doesn't know where she belongs or to whom, no one can help her, and she can't bear the uncertainty a moment longer.

Aside from Nyman's performance, the other strength of I Am Curious Yellow lies in the fact that it is, literally, a curious film. Like Lena, it's trying to discover what it's about as it runs. Though the film makes several mistakes, it's clear they're not calculated and are, at the very least, born of genuine artistic intent. A goofy, intelligent, but sophomoric tone pervades the film. It can be annoying, sure, but it slowly earns your respect and then blind-sides you with a perfect observation about human nature.

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