It’s been a bad week for stars of erotic European arthouse films: A day after the announcement that Last Tango In Paris’ Maria Schneider had died comes news of the death of Lena Nyman, star of sexually charged Swedish films I Am Curious (Yellow) and I Am Curious (Blue). Nyman was 66.
In Vilgot Sjöman’s 1967 film, Nyman played the character “Lena Nyman”—a young girl engaged equally in sociopolitical activism and her own blossoming sexual liberation… who also happens to be starring in a film directed by Vilgot Sjöman. The inserts of Nyman’s interviewing people for a documentary she’s working on, the strange dream sequences involving Martin Luther King Jr. (whom Sjöman interviewed while King was in Stockholm), and scenes where Sjöman actually interrupts the action and engages with Nyman as an actress made for a fractured narrative that became even more pronounced in the 1968 follow-up I Am Curious (Blue), which offered a parallel version of the same story that further broke the fourth wall. (Sjöman originally intended to run them both as one long, three-and-a-half-hour film.)
But for all its structural inventiveness, I Am Curious was most notorious for its frank sex scenes and rampant nudity, causing it to be seized by U.S. Customs and banned for years in many cities, sparking several long legal battles—including one in front of the Supreme Court. And as with Schneider, Nyman was forced to battle the public perception that she was less an actress than an actual whore, as Gary Giddins noted in his write-up for the films’ Criterion edition, receiving scores of insults and even death threats in its wake. (That Nyman was not a glamorous, movie-star beauty only added to the heightened reality, and thus the idea that the film crossed a line.) Yet unlike Schneider, despite the backlash Nyman seemed unafraid to be among those who represented the sexual revolution, starring in many more films that pushed the boundaries of social mores.
In all, Nyman starred in more than 50 Swedish films and TV shows over the course of her career, working steadily until just a few years ago. Her other best-known role to international audiences came in 1978, when she played the mentally impaired sister to Liv Ulmmann’s accomplished pianist in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. Playing a role far removed from the spry, libidinous girl of I Am Curious, Nyman’s Helena is a woman whose frustration at her inability to properly communicate leads to one of the film’s most haunting scenes as Nyman explodes in a fit of spastic anger. Although Nyman’s legacy is unquestionably linked to the freewheeling eroticism of I Am Curious, time and again Nyman proved she was a versatile actress capable of both the extremes and quietude of human emotion.