Is it possible to make a movie that works as both art house fare and exploitation cinema? Arne Mattsson’s Ann och Eve – de erotiska (1970), which was released in the U.S. in an English dubbed version as Ann and Eve, certainly comes close but still manages to frustrate both intended audiences with a bait-and-switch narrative that moves freely from sexual titillation to Swedish angst a la Bergman to surreal flights of fancy and back again, never revealing whether it should be taken seriously or as a put-on until the final frames.
I first encountered Ann and Eve when I worked for the non-theatrical distributor Films Inc. in 1983. Although the college market was the predominant market for the company, churches, high schools, film societies and museums were also steady renters of 16mm films. And so were state penitentiaries. As you can imagine, Ann and Eve was a much requested title from the prison programmers who most likely had viewed the racy trailer, which is unashamedly exploitive with plenty of female nudity, straight and lesbian couplings and a hint of freakiness involving a dwarf. But when I finally saw the movie, it was a much different animal than I expected.
One of the clues that Ann and Eve was not going to be a typical grindhouse sleazefest was the director Arne Mattsson, who had earned critical accolades much earlier in his career for Hon dansade en sommar (One Summer of Happiness, 1951), For min heta ungdoms skull (Because of My Hot Youth, 1952), Karlekens brod (Bread of Love, 1953) and Korkarlen (Phantom Carriage, 1958).
The only film of his I had seen was Vaxdockan (The Doll, 1962), a dark, moody psychological drama about a department store nightwatchman (Per Oscarsson) whose loneliness and isolation leads to increasingly erratic behavior involving his obsession with a mannequin. Once he kidnaps the doll and takes it home for companionship, reality and fantasy become indistinguishable as the mannequin (played by Gio Petré) comes to life, exerting a strong-willed personality of her own. Although The Doll is primarily a character study of a man’s descent into madness, it achieves an erotic intensity at times and the mixture of gloomy melodrama and hallucinatory fantasy points the way to an idiosyncratic style that would become more pronounced in Ann and Eve.
On the surface, Ann and Eve takes a formulaic premise – two women on holiday together – and embellishes it with sexual encounters and exotic locales (the film was shot at a coastal resort in Yugoslavia but, in the English dubbed version, is incorrectly identified as Italy). Think of the film as a road movie with the older, more experienced Ann (Gio Petré), introducing her younger, soon-to-be married companion Eve (Marie Liljedahl) to the pleasures of the flesh. There is no backstory on how these two became friends or decided to travel together. But you have to suspend disbelief of this unlikely friendship since it is merely a device to set up what will become a power struggle between the two women – the jaded, manipulative Ann vs. the virtuous, virginal Eve. These stereotypes are soon shattered and roles are reversed as the duo experience a greater share of humiliation, frustration and jealousy than hedonistic pleasure.
This alone would make a compelling melodrama, with or without the sexploitation elements, but Mattsson also weaves in a parallel subplot involving one of Eve’s seducers, Walter (Heinz Hopf), a local lothario and all-round slacker whose womanizing leads to murderous consequences. Whether the message here is that the female is the deadliest of the species is questionable but Mattsson’s true motivation for making Ann and Eve appears to be something entirely different and emerges in episodic fashion with Ann’s wanderings in the second half of the film.
For sexploitation fans, there is plenty to hold one’s attention throughout with both Petré and Liljedahl disrobing often, showering or lounging around their motel room when they aren’t involved in initiating seductions or being seduced. Both are in peak physical form though it was near the end of their careers; Petré would star in two more films and Liljedahl only one before retiring. Of the two libertines, Eve’s sexual escapades seem designed to honor the come-hither aspects of the ad campaign and to please fans of Liljehahl who had flocked to such steamy fare as Inga (1968) and Eugenie…The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1970).
Eve’s immersion into lust and wanton desire begins when Ann first lures her into an overnight boat excursion with Walter and his friend. Later Eve is bewitched by a voluptuous lesbian nightclub singer (Olivera Vuco) that culminates in one of the more bizarre sequences, a four-woman orgy set to live piano accompaniment and capped by the dwarf pianist mounting Eve.
It should be noted that this particular setting is not a nightclub by any normal stretch of the imagination; it’s like an interior courtyard in some baroque palace. And the nightclub chanteuse is a crazed hybrid of gypsy dancer and opera singer who is followed around by musicians who look like they escaped from the album cover of “Folk Music of Yugoslavia.”
Eve’s same sex experimentation gets a big check mark (“It’s wonderful. Better than a man. The way she touched my breast!”) but doesn’t convert her and she soon hooks up with the porter (Julián Mateos) in the resort hotel who seems more like a stalker. I doubt if anyone, however, could have predicted her final fling before she returns home to her fiancé. She hitches a ride with a truckload of sweaty laborers who get her drunk on wine and have their way with her on sacks of grain. The fact that it is not presented as a gang rape but as a consensual act is like a visceral taunt to potential detractors of the film, suggesting that it was Eve’s plan to choreography her own self-debasement. In the end, Eve, who always seemed more like a blank slate than Ann’s more defined nihilist, is revealed as an amoral opportunist. During a final kiss-off confrontation with Ann, Eve says, “I can go back to Sweden as fresh and untouched as when I came here. I came here to get myself a tan. I figured my white bridal gown would look better on me that way.”
If Eve’s experiences in the film play to the expectations of softcore voyeurs, Ann’s story arc travels deep into Ingmar Bergman territory with occasional detours into the surreal combined with an ongoing intellectual debate about mass entertainment vs. artistic achievement. The fantasy element is apparent from the beginning when we see Ann murder a man in an abandoned circus tent with a machine gun.
As the film progresses we realize that the “murder” is metaphorical, an act of revenge in Ann’s head against her former lover, a film director, who has rejected her. The blow to her self-esteem and ego is what motivates Ann to flee the situation and go on holiday with a younger woman whose lack of sexual experience she can manipulate to her own satisfaction. But if Ann seems like a corrupting and cynical predator, it is mostly a mask to hide the pain of a major crash-and-burn relationship.
Adding to her sense of isolation and despair are chance encounters with a former Nazi colonel (Erik Hell) now living in obscurity in a quaint seaside resort and a famous film director named Francesco (Francisco Rabal) whom she engages in an ongoing debate about art versus commerce in the film industry. The former is a shadowy presence who haunts the town’s parks and graveyard and still seeks absolution for past war crimes. The film director, on the other hand, is a charmingly smug raconteur who makes a point of refuting any praise Ann bestows on his work. “The film exists for the public, not for you,” he states with a superior smile. “You insist on seeing mystery and significance where I only see a joke and you miss the target entirely…people don’t look at films like critics do. There is no similarity between what you’ve written and I’ve intended. It goes right over the heads of most of your readers…The masses have more sense than you.”
The final putdown could very well be Mattsson addressing the film critics of his native Sweden through Francesco when the film director says to Ann: “You write brilliantly in spite of the fact that you’ve been unable to understand the film at all and I will profit from your praise and in public conceal my contempt for your kind.”
Most of this debate takes place in a suite of a luxury hotel where Francesco is surrounded by an entourage of women who are feasting at a banquet table with a semi-nude man as the centerpiece (one female guest casually puts a cigarette out on his chest). This is just one of many sequences where director Mattsson casually drifts into theater of the absurd territory.
The amount of attention Matteson devotes to the psychological duel between Ann and Francesco strongly suggests that Ann and Eve was conceived as a softcore exploitation film in the most superficial sense and that the real intent was to mock the hypocrisy of critics and the movie industry through a movie that pretended to be sexy and profound at the same time. This is borne out at the end when we see an audience previewing Francesco’s latest film and catch glimpses of Eve (the secret star of the film?) accompanied by on-screen commercial blurbs such as “You can positively feel the freshness” or “Such a lovely bride.” If there is any doubt of Mattsson’s conception of the film as an elaborate private joke, consider the final departing shot of a naked man walking past a poster for Francesco’s latest film, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” as we hear the voice of a little girl exclaim, “But he’s got nothing on!”
I can only imagine how prisoners at penitentiary screenings of Ann and Eve responded to this, not to mention how the film fared with critics in Sweden. But it seems to be popular opinion that Mattsson reached the peak of his popularity in the late fifties when he embarked on a series of thrillers beginning with Damen I svart (1958); the second one, Mannekang I rott (also 1958) is reputed to be a major influence on Mario Bava’s seminal 1964 giallo, Blood and Black Lace. Mattsson fell out of public and critical favor in the sixties and seventies despite his reputation as a superb craftsman of genre films. There were occasional highpoints such as The Doll and Yngsjomordet (The Yngsjo Murder, 1966) but his later work was often regarded as uneven at best. Ann and Eve might well have been intended as the ultimate rebuke to those that dismissed his later work but I find it fascinating for the way it straddles the line between exploitation and art before settling for a self-satiric fadeout. Too bad you can no longer see Ann and Eve in the original, uncut Swedish language version with English subtitles. It could be a lost film at this point. Something Weird Video released it on VHS but I never saw that version (It is long out of print).
An English dubbed, U.S. release is currently available on DVD from Video Dimensions but, according to customer comments, a blurring effect is used on all scenes involving sexual activity. Someone remarked that Mattsson had done this intentionally as a stylistic device but having seen a relatively intact version of the U.S. release at Films Inc., no blurring was evident and it was certainly more explicit than most softcore exploitation films at the time (it was released with an X rating).
I recently viewed a DVD of Ann and Eve from European Trash Cinema and was surprised to see that most of the erotic sequences are indeed blurred, cut short or missing completely (Could this be the same source as the Video Dimensions release?). It’s also quite possible that some reels are out of order as the continuity is more scattershot than I remember. But I don’t suppose Ann and Eve is going to turn up anytime soon in a restored, uncut Blu-Ray so an inferior, bowdlerized version may be your only option. Yet even in this compromised state, you can still appreciate the film’s eccentric, offbeat qualities and provocative nature and be motivated to check out other work by Arne Mattsson.
One final note of interest: Gio Petré, who retired from film acting in the mid-seventies, was back in the news recently in connection with an investigation into the unsolved 1986 shooting death of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme. At the time, Petré was involved romantically with Alf Enerstrom, a doctor and rightwing activist who was known to vehemently oppose Palme. Although a suspect in the case, Enerstrom had an alibi the night of the murder – he said he was with Petré all night. Now Petré confesses that that is not true and Enerstrom went out for several hours that night during which time he could have killed Palme (he owned a gun). It is unclear why Petré is revealing this now but perhaps it will reignite interest in solving the case.
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