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Mad Men: The Story Behind That Softcore Sex Film Don and Megan Went to See

Nowadays, the title I Am Curious (Yellow) is probably better known than the film to which it belongs, having been parodied or referenced in everything from Get Smart to Superman comics to The Simpsons and now, Mad Men. It's the film that Don and Megan went to see off-screen in last night's episode. (Don: "[I'm] still scandalized." Peggy: "Of course Megan would want to see a dirty movie.") In 1969, and for some years afterward, this Swedish movie was the highest-grossing foreign film in the U.S. by a wide margin, thanks to a censorship scandal that helped pave the way for more explicit material to be shown on American movie screens.

The film is an arty doc-narrative hybrid about sexual mores, class struggle, and political attitudes in Sweden. Director Vilgot Sjoman cast himself as a filmmaker following a politically committed and sexually liberated young drama student, Lena Nyman, around Stockholm, about issues such as sex, class struggle, and politics. Meanwhile, a weird love triangle develops between Sjoman, Lena, and married, conservative salesman Borje Ahlstedt. There are dream sequences, discussions of nonviolence, and cameo appearances by political figures. (The film was originally meant to be one single work called I Am Curious. But realizing that would be too long, Sjoman separated it into two parts – Yellow and Blue. The latter would open after Yellow, with nowhere near the same level of box office success.)

The sex in the film is explicit, but not particularly outrageous. Nor was it really meant to be. Sjoman has said he was looking more for intimacy and realism; the actors look ordinary, and there’s nothing titillating about their coupling. “[I]f we were going to break away from the old clichés, we had to say: this is what people look like; now put the camera on them and don’t use tricks,” the director says in an interview available at the Criterion Collection’s site.

But Curious also features a scene where Lena kisses Borje’s limp penis; one simply did not see full-frontal male nudity in respectable movie theaters at the time. (And, hey, it’s still pretty rare, unless you’re Michael Fassbender or Ewan McGregor.) Sure enough, the film was impounded by U.S. Customs in 1968 and held under the Tariff Act of 1930, which states that Customs can seize any material coming into the U.S. that it thinks may be obscene and then submit that material to a Federal Court. In 1969, a Federal Court decided that Yellow was obscene, but a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, declaring that the film was not “utterly without redeeming social value” and thus fit for screening. By that point, the publicity pump had been primed. Barney Rosset, the legendary head of Grove Press, the film’s U.S. distributor, had a nose for scandalous, groundbreaking material; he had already passed through the anti-obscenity gauntlet several times before, having published Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Sexploitation movies were nothing new in 1969, but those films were mostly relegated to grindhouses and porn houses. I Am Curious (Yellow) screened in what were ostensibly mainstream movie theaters, to middlebrow audiences eager to see what all the fuss was about. Most of them didn’t care for it. Nor did many critics: "I Am Curious (Yellow) is not merely not erotic. It is anti-erotic. Two hours of this movie will drive thoughts of sex out of your mind for weeks. See the picture and buy twin beds,” wrote Roger Ebert. “A genuinely vile and disgusting Swedish meatball,” wrote Rex Reed in the New York Times. On the other hand, Norman Mailer deemed it “one of the most important pictures I have ever seen in my life.”

More charges would be brought up against the film by some local and state authorities as it made its way around the country; a couple of these cases even reached the U.S. Supreme Court. All this was more fuel for the box-office fire. The film was a huge hit, eventually grossing more than $20 million in the U.S. Its release would become a watershed for obscenity laws in the country. Within just a couple of years, sexploitation movies became a regular feature of mainstream movie theaters — a situation Deep Throat, an honest-to-goodness porn flick, would take full advantage of in 1972.