The Girls (Mai Zetterling, 1968)
What a lovely, bizarre experimental narrative on complex femininity. Zetterling beautifully implements a nouvelle vague
style to convey the tribulations drawing even the most self-fulfilled women back into the world of men, as well as to formally express their loose playfulness which becomes a continual reminder of resiliency. The technical choices blur the line between dream, memory, imagination and reality, all of which hold equally significant weight, but the filmmaker also professes that these imposed burdens from the conjunction of the self and society can be traversed, alleviated, embraced, and assigned subjective value as part of the practice of female empowerment. For example, Bibi's hosts' internal monologues are an odd insert in giving them first-person narration. Are they her anxious projections or the reality of behavior interpreted from the outside? Either way she’s left simultaneously unaffected in continuing to chat away, greeting them with compassion, and being her authentic self - and yet she is also clearly poisoned with self-consciousness when they leave. This conflict delivers information of personal disharmony in minor bouts of private despair, and
showcases the ability to assert the self in harmony by overcoming ennui, at the same time.
This duality extends to all three of the women, who are in cyclical fluxes of being inescapably drawn to and repelled by men, and have a complicated relationship with their own responses to this magnetism. Running away from a man helplessly in the snow, trying to flee a life tied to him, is juxtaposed with a joyous mattress shopping scene where they cannot help but spill their playful bedroom intimacy out into the public world, confidently without embarrassment. Who is who across these scenes is unimportant, as evidenced by the obscure editing, but the aura of contradictions evaporates into a universality that drives enigmatic emotional unity. The friction of their desires for connection with those for independent self-esteem, and the lack of clarity in processing these contrasting needs, is emphasized by the elliptical formalism to construct a narrative that is fluid in its internal logic but not a typically sensical display.
The tv interview the girls do, where they laugh at the contradictions they spew in trying to explain the play, is a summation of what this film is, and what their lives are- impossible to pin down, but sobering in both its truth of unavoidable malaise and the equal truth that one can
escape into harmony with oneself far more than they think. Most of all this was incredibly fun, spirited, and tenderly atmospheric. I don’t know if I can definitively call this the best feminist film I’ve ever seen, but the self-reflexive nature, the exposition of foggy terrain that women traverse daily in being torn between their deeply-ingrained gender roles, biological drives, and will to be free of these constraints- as well as trying to decipher what “free” means, and if, or how, that definition can shift to exclude men without guilt- are all cause for its candidacy.
Though it’s the places this goes and where it ultimately leads us that seals the deal and is cause for celebration. We land in self-actualized rhapsody, and while still within the confines of society, Bibi’s final act bleeds the play’s independence into real life and allows the joke to become serious in part without being wholly one tone- much like the tv interview banter sets the stage for thematically. The action isn't sourced in specificity, but in the refusal to remain stuck in the murky waters of prolonged consideration, taking a tangible action and embracing it. Regardless of the pros and cons, the liberation is in the choice itself to trust the gut, divorced from the details of the act to follow. I loved this film, which deconstructs femininity void of any purpose of evaluation, instead as a necessary step to reconstruct the experience back into a stronger energy, and as proof of worthy emancipation, not for us as social observers but for the women themselves.