Vilgot Sjöman, I Am Curious (Yellow), 1967, black and white film in 35 mm, 121 minutes. Left: Advertisement for the film. Right: Production still.

“FREEDOM’S NOT EASY, SWEET LENA,” goes a lyric in a song from Sweden’s most infamous export, the 1967 film I Am Curious (Yellow). It’s an observation that director Vilgot Sjöman would also discover to be true. Sjöman’s fact-and-fiction-mixing fifth feature, about the political and sexual explorations of twenty-two-year-old Lena (Lena Nyman), was banned by the US Customs Service, objecting to an episode in which Lena kisses her lover’s flaccid penis, in January 1968 for being obscene; it was finally released in this country in March 1969 after a federal appeals court ruled that the film was protected by the First Amendment.

A committed provocateur—earlier films include My Sister, My Love (1966), about an incestuous romance between a twin brother and sister—Sjöman is interested more in the consequences and fault lines of 1960s social upheavals than in dirty-movie prurience. I Am Curious (Yellow) (a companion piece, I Am Curious [Blue], was released the following year; the colors refer to the Swedish flag) shows the influences of Godard’s cine-tracts and Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s cinema-verité landmark Chronicle of a Summer (1961), in which random Parisians are approached on the street and asked, “Are you happy?” In Yellow, Lena, who runs the Lena Institute from her bedroom in the grim Stockholm apartment she shares with her father, makes a series of on-the-street inquiries: “Does Sweden have a class system?” “Do women have equal opportunities?” Defensive Swedes returning from vacation in Majorca, Spain, are scolded by the tiny firebrand for contributing to the economy of Franco’s Fascist regime.

Within the nonfiction interrogation of matters of state, a psychodrama about sexuality unfolds, and with it, an oblique indictment of filmmaking. Sjöman, playing a fictionalized version of himself, is a middle-aged director who casts the buxom Lena as the lead in the film because they’re sleeping together, though he clearly thinks she’s his intellectual inferior: “It’s a damned shame she doesn’t understand politics,” he says offscreen. Sjöman and his “crew,” following Lena’s adventures, appear intermittently; later, in retaliation for Lena’s affair with Börje (Börje Ahlstedt), the director tosses her over for his latest casting-couch conquest.

Börje’s own raging insecurity (and hypocrisy) flares up in response to Lena’s offhand announcement that she’s slept with twenty-three men. More clinical than titillating, sex between the two is marked by their casual nakedness, the abundant views of genitals that so outraged US Customs officials culminating in the most unerotic treatment of private parts imaginable. Freedom—political, social, sexual, artistic—isn’t easy, but sometimes it’s profitable: According to Sjöman’s obituary in the New York Times (he died in 2006), I Am Curious (Yellow) remained the most financially successful foreign film in the United States for twenty-three years.

Melissa Anderson

I Am Curious (Yellow) screens April 16 and 30 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of the series “Northern Exposures: Social Change and Sexuality in Swedish Cinema, 1913–2010.” For more details, click here.