Cecilia M.’s review published on Letterboxd :
Nattlek, or Night Games, is a 1966 film by Swedish director Mai Zetterling, based on her own novel. Zetterling's background was peculiar for the time: she had actually been an established actress and continued to act throughout her directing career, which isn't that common even today.
I had actually meant to watch her Aristophanes' adaptation, The Girls, but my computer decided to quit on me, so I went with this controversial work instead.
Jan (Keve Hjelm, who had just appeared in Bo Widerberg's Love 65) brings his fiancée Mariane (Lena Brundin) to his old family mansion and, once there, starts having flashbacks or dreams — or maybe a little bit of both — about his childhood; the film then unfolds in tightly woven coils of symbolism (so many birds in cages) and surrealist, fairy-tale imagery (the eggs, the man with the animal mask), which seem to clearly point to some kind of sexual abuse involving a young Jan and his mother, Irene (Ingrid Thulin, the most regal and, to me, the most beautiful of Ingmar Bergman's quintessential actresses). Aunt Astrid (Naima Wifstrand) is the Crone figure who completes the archetypal female triad: a slightly bizarre old woman who immediately creeped me out by quoting the gospel, she actually reveals herself to be a kind person. Jan seems to muddle the three in a fog of longing, since he appears to be infatuated with his mother, he says he wants to marry his aunt, and once jokingly calles Mariane "aunt Astrid". I was somewhat surprised by a line in which Brundin and Thulin are said to look alike: both are evidently gorgeous and blonde, but Thulin has a classical, almost cameo-like face, while Brundin's more modern features are closer to another Bergman/Zetterling collaborator, that is to say Gunnel Lindblom. Maybe Lindblom was originally cast for Irene? Who knows.
Night Games is a convoluted film, vastly helped by Zetterling neat direction, starkly beautiful compositions and very smart cuts (transitions are always fluid and clear); the acting is opaque, but that's appropriate for such a metaphor-laden work.
A lot of people have noted the similarity of this work with films by Fellini and Bergman; I think there could definitely be something in common with Bergman: Zetterling herself has acted in an Ingmar Bergman film, and often used players who had worked with him, but going further would require a knowledge of Zetterling's oeuvre deeper than mine. The Fellini resemblance, however, strikes me as superficial; if Zetterling is fascinated by the same themes as the Italian master, like decadence and the Carnival, Night Games is ostensibly filtered through a famous Kay Nielsen illustration, called Don't Drink! I Would Rather Marry a Gardener!; fragments of this image are featured often in the film, whether it's the dress of Jan's mother which reminded me immediately of the princess' gown, the three figures on the left wearing 18th century clothes which mirror the characters in the home movie towards the end, or the very feminine prince, a dead ringer for the young Jan when he tries on his mother's makeup.
Now, on to the film's faults — one is about the actors, the other is about the narrative. There's a scene in which Irene takes the 12-year-old Jan (played by Jörgen Lindström, who at the time was fourteen, since the film was probably shot in the winter between 1965 and 1966) from the bathtub and brings him to a bedroom, where she proceeds to dry him off and then read him a story; the fact that a very young actor was required to do nudity and film such a suggestive scene with a much older adult frankly makes my stomach turn. To be perfectly clear: I'm sure the scene was meant to be disturbing, and that's fine, but Zetterling is a great director and could have blocked it in such a way so as not to require nudity, at least.
Narrative-wise, this is another film where homosexuality is often coded as perverse. There are two minor male characters who recur multiple times and who are suggested to be gay: they are effeminate, they photograph a male model and they hold hands with each other. Towards the end, they actually steal, concretizing the general greed (sexual and otherwise) they've been thematically linked with throughout the film. I realize this was shot in the 1960s and I've watched it in the 2010s, but forgive me if I roll my eyes whenever I have to witness this trope.