Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Why Haven't You Seen...? Anita (1973)

What’s It All About?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A nymphomaniac (in this case Anita, played by Christina Lindberg), finding herself isolated, takes shelter at the home of Erik, a psychiatry student played by Stellan Skarsgård. In flashback, she tells him about her many sexual encounters and how her compulsive sex drive has never made her happy. He, of course, falls in love as he’s trying to treat her.

Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Vintage Swedish sexploitation is, it’s fair to say, something of a niche interest. I discovered this film (and some others that we may cover in the future) because of Christina Lindberg, who I discovered in the brilliant and hugely influential Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Unless you’re an obsessive fan of exploitation cinema, Lindberg or Skarsgård I’d be surprised if Anita has ever come on your radar.

Why Should You See It?
Anita is an unusual exploitation film. It’s full of the basic ingredients you’d expect, chiefly the stunningly beautiful lead actress, the copious nudity and the one lesbian scene, thrown in purely for the enjoyment of the male audience. What sets Anita apart is tone. This is both a more serious and a more downbeat film than much seventies sexploitation (contrast it, for instance, with the lightness of Felicity). It’s not pretending to be anything other than sexploitation, but writer/director Torgny Wickman’s screenplay does at least aspire to offer some psychological depth to Anita and her compulsions, and the writing and visuals both have a certain grimy realism that sets the film apart.

Christina Lindberg is a good reason to watch just about anything. She is impossibly beautiful; a delicate face with huge eyes. She's well cast here, given her capacity to look like a confident, seductive woman one minute and an innocent who desperately needs protecting the next. A year after her brilliant mute performance in Thriller, she again excels at putting across what her character is going through purely with her face and body. One striking moment sees Anita pick up a man as he gets off a train at the local station. She takes him to an apartment and they have sex. Wickman portrays their encounter quite explicitly, but this isn’t a titillating scene as, in common with many of the other sex scenes, Lindberg’s body language here expresses need rather than desire, something only underlined when, after the brief sex is over, she turns over and cries. 

None of this is to say that Lindberg isn’t also very good in her dialogue scenes, indeed she holds her own with a young Stellan Skarsgård, who seems to bring his customary dedication to the part of Erik, you get the sense that he saw this was a richer piece of character writing than was typical in the genre and he plays Erik’s earnest dedication to helping Anita well, while also letting us see the desire that lies behind it. This is perhaps the best point to note the similarities to Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Indeed if the ending were different it would be easy to suggest that Erik might actually be a young version of that film’s Seligman. At the very least one has to wonder whether Skarsgård reflected on this film, and his performance in it, before making Nymphomaniac. The similarities in plot and tone are certainly too marked to imagine that Von Trier wasn’t influenced by Anita and there’s a mischievous twist to the casting of Skarsgård if that’s the case.

The film takes a genuine interest in the psychology both of Anita’s nymphomania (though it defines it pretty broadly, as a reaction against the repressive parents who favour her younger sister, or as a quest for the orgasm she’s never had) and of the way that people react to her. The film definitely regards Anita as someone with an illness, but the people around her don’t and the script seems to posit that the abuse she gets, both verbal and, on occasion, physical, only strengthens her compulsion. There are definitely times at which Wickman is using this as a framework on which to hang the film’s sex and nudity, but he does at least have some serious intent, and it’s matched by Lindberg and Skarsgård's work.

For all its nudity (and there may be as much in 90 minutes here as there is in the 4 hours of Nymphomaniac), Anita is seldom conventionally exploitative. This, along with the lack of reaction from the other people in the room, is probably why Anita’s impromptu striptease at a party given by her parents feels so out of place in the film. The reactions are so muted that it almost seems like a fantasy, a story she’s made up for Erik. That’s emphasised, perhaps accidentally, by the tinny sound of the scenes at home. There may be a technical reason for this, and for why these scenes seem dubbed when the rest of the film is obviously using live sound, but it does give an edge of surrealism that could lead you to question how honest Anita is being about her relationship with her parents.

Visually, Torgny Wickman gives the film a gritty feel. Everything has a grimy look to it, from the shared student apartment Erik lives in to the roadside tent that Anita has a couple of her sexual encounters in. Only the scenes in Anita’s parents home feel clean and put together, another thing that sets them at a slight remove from the rest of the film.

Overall, Anita (best known under the title Anita: Swedish Nymphet, though the on screen title is Anita: The Story of a 17 Year Old Nymphomaniac), is a cut above for sexploitation. If you’re just in it for the sex and nudity then Christina Lindberg made lighter films that are probably more up your street (and also well worth watching), but here we get to see her deliver a strong performance in a film that at least aspires to have ideas and to be taken seriously. 

How Can You See It?
The UK release is in the Swedish Erotica boxset, which is a highly recommended set of six films, including two others with Christina Lindberg. Unfortunately the set is now out of print. The print is 4:3 and battered, but there’s something about the streaks and marks on the film that make it feel all the more authentic. I wouldn’t say no to a proper Blu Ray upgrade though, the film deserves it. There does seem to be an (out of print) Region 1 release on Amazon as well, but it doesn't look very official.

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