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Story of Film - October 2013
Remind Me
,I Am Curious (Yellow)

I am Curious (Yellow)

A pivotal film in both Swedish cinema and the history of American censorship, I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) is a film that may seem challenging to modern viewers without any historical context. However, it was a significant trailblazer not only in the type of content that could be shown on movie screens but in the way a story could be told. In fact, some would argue that it barely tells a story at all; instead the combination of documentarian political discourse and social commentary with an unorthodox "love" story was the first time many audiences saw a film that so thoroughly erased the line between cinematic fact and fiction.

In fact, the much-touted sexuality of the film only arrives after we have already gotten to know the main character, Lena Nyman (playing a fictionalized version of herself), who is seen interviewing politicians and people on the street about Sweden's class system. An acting student currently involved with Vilgot Sjöman, the film's director also playing "himself," she is deeply concerned with social injustice and becomes involved with Börje Ahlstedt, a retail salesman with other women in his life. Their affair leads to tension elsewhere in her life as the film switches back and forth between real life and drama, often multiple times within the same scene.

Director Sjöman was one of the directors who built a career at Filmstaden, Sweden's film studio established by Svensk Filmindustri and home to other filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Victor Sjöström. Given a finite amount of black and white film stock and a low budget to make any film he wanted without restrictions, Sjöman set out to make a pair of films based on the two colors of the Swedish flag, yellow and blue. He saw them not as a film and its sequel but filmic parallels telling the same story with different material. His audacious concept even extended to getting an interview for the film with Martin Luther King, Jr., which was scheduled to be conducted with Lena but, due to her unavailability at short notice, had to be conducted by Sjöman himself.

Upon its release, I Am Curious (Yellow) caused some controversy in its native country and was banned in Norway, but that was nothing compared to the firestorm to come. Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset, the man behind the publishing of such volatile novels as Tropic of Cancer, acquired the film for $100,000, only to have it seized by U.S. customs and declared obscene. A much-touted court battle ensued with attorney Edward de Grazia stepping in to defend its frank portrayal of women's rights and sexual liberty. Despite an initial defeat, the legal process continued with Rosset eventually prevailing, paving the way for a box office smash and pop culture phenomenon in the same era Broadway was gasping at the counterculture taboo smashing in Hair. Apart from initiating the flood of envelope-pushing erotic films that took over many art house theaters until the advent of Deep Throat the following decade, the film became a common reference in pop culture including, curiously enough, a slew of TV shows ranging from Get Smart and The Simpsons to a particularly infamous episode of Moonlighting.

With its shock value quickly eclipsed by more extreme offerings upon its wide release in 1969, the film instead offers rewards now as a snapshot of the European youth mentality with a still-surprising amount of humor (including some jabs at the Swedish royalty that still provoke chuckles). At the time many reviewers had to stand on separate sides of the dividing line between loving and loathing it, with the socially conservative Rex Reed (who had yet to appear in the far more perverse Myra Breckinridge, 1970) famously slamming it "as good for you as drinking furniture polish." With Ken Russell's Women in Love (1969) still yet to cross an English-speaking barrier with its legendary wrestling scene, this was also the first time many mainstream viewers were, ahem, exposed to frontal male nudity, the most contentious aspect of its legal wrangling with a prosecutor even interrogating Ahlstedt about the nature and extent of his costar's handling of his manhood. Now of course the nudity is more remarkable for its casual earthiness, and the film's structure can be admired as the progenitor for reality-jumbling successors ranging from Medium Cool (1969) to Borat (2006). Sjöman's experiment may be a curious footnote in cinematic history now, but just try to imagine how different films might be today without it.

By Nathaniel Thompson


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