If the Government of Sweden drew up a list of native directors to produce a promotional film on the delights of their country, it is unlikely that Lukas Moodysson would be particularly high on the list. Contemporary views of Sweden are of an idyllic, forward thinking and open-minded country that sets a template for what Europe is capable of. This new and comprehensive 4 DVD box-set of Moodysson’s films comes at an interesting point in the career of this relatively young director and serves as a round up of his work so far. It also presents a more realistic and grounded view of his native Sweden from a variety of fascinating angles. When pressed, Moodysson has stated that he is less influenced by Bergman and more by The Cure and Morrissey.
It is also the presence of Morrissey on Agnes’ bedroom wall that introduces her character in the opening scenes of Moodysson’s popular debut feature film, Fucking Åmål (1998). A lonely and introverted teenager, her world is dominated by her feelings for Elin, a confident and popular girl at her school. The characters are joined in their hatred for the confining oppressiveness of Åmål. For Agnes it is a town of middle-class mannerisms (represented by her parents) that stifle her lesbian feelings. For working-class Elin it is a prison of stupid boys and a TV addicted mother so far removed from the modern, hip cities that she idealises. The deep, grainy texture of the film depletes the town of any notion of inner-city beauty, rendering it a rather bleak and unforgiving place. Moodysson is purported to have spent weeks with school kids picking up patterns of speech and behaviours in order to make Fucking Åmål an unflinchingly honest account of real teenagers in modern Sweden. The effect is wonderfully sincere.
Whilst the film posits Agnes’ attempts to win the heart of the girl she loves as the main story, it is really the journey of feisty Elin which makes the story so compelling. The scene of the two characters on a bridge, with Elin spitting down on the passing cars, is indicative of this. One wonders whether she is spitting on the inhabitants of a town she despises or at those who are managing to escape to some fictional better life. The climax of the film features one of the least subtle visual metaphors in the history of cinema but the moment is so well-timed and blissfully life-affirming that you forgive the director this brief foray into melodrama. The title of the film has been ‘translated’ to the rather banal and misjudged ‘Show Me Love’ – for these two girls it is not the need to be shown love that propels them, but rather expressing love to help them rise above the blandness of oppressive Åmål.
Moodysson’s next film, Together (2000), introduces us to a group of people who have already decided to escape the confines of conventional society. Set in a commune in 1970s Stockholm, this is a heart warming tale of people seeking out an alternative life for themselves. Together focuses primarily on the story of Elisabeth, who along with her two children, escapes the violent alcoholism of her husband by moving in with her brother Göran in a suburban based commune called ‘Together’.
Together is a strangely surreal experience. The gratuitous use of camera zooms and dissolve transitions gives the film a slightly surreal, dreamy quality. It appears to be shot in a slightly clunky, 70s style to enhance the authenticity of the piece, and it is this attention to detail (along with the music, clothes and design) that makes the film so faithfully real.
The film develops as a sort of light critique of communal ways, mocking its well-intentioned principles. The notion of free-love and multiple partners is quickly and hilariously outed as unworkable, a nice idea but impractical in the real world. However, the real barbs are aimed at the conservatism of 70s Swedish suburbia. The next door neighbours are curtain twitching busy-bodies who judgementally condemn the hippies as deviants, whilst nipping down to the cellar to masturbate. So whilst the hypocrisies and idealisms of their way of life are quietly critiqued, the principle of humans as social animals who need company to thrive is firmly argued.
Moodyson’s third film in the box-set is his first venture out of Sweden, but more importantly Lilya 4-ever (2002) is a significant thematic departure for the director. The film tells the story of Lilya, a teenage girl who lives with her mother in a depressingly run-down Russian town. When her mother cruelly moves away, Lilya pursues a deep friendship with Volodja, a young boy who shares her dreams of escaping to the West. Lilya’s vulnerability and loneliness leaves her open to fall in love with Andrej, a man too generous and affectionate to be true. Soon Andrej arranges for Lilya to fly to Sweden without him where she is forced into a life of terrible, non-consensual prostitution.
Lilya-4ever is grim watching. Moodysson’s depiction of child-abuse as commerce and the cynical ways that girls are press-ganged into a life of enforced sex is both humbling and infuriating. The main strength of the director’s investigations is the tracing of the child prostitution route backwards from his home country, to the pimp’s favourite recruiting ground of Eastern Europe.
There is something in the execution of the film that does not work as well as his past efforts and leave the viewer vaguely unsatisfied. Moodysson has stated that the film was initially conceived as his attempt to deal in a metaphysical way with his idea of God. Whilst the film is clearly Moodysson dealing with child prostitution, it also appears to be a very personal investigation into his own faith and debates around religion (something he shares with Bergman). The character of Volodja appears in the latter parts of the film as a ghost or an angel who helps Lilya in a way that suggests that much of the final scenes are a fantasy, or that the director wants to provide a genuine deus ex machina. Moodysson may be playfully presenting a spiritual idea that completely compromises his presentation of the awful realities of sex trafficking. The jury is out on this one.
Finally, the fourth DVD contains Moodysson’s most recent film, the critically divisive Hole In My Heart (2004). This highly stylistic departure for Moodysson is an experimental, free-form film that deals with issues of morality, the corruption of society, porn and reality television. Eric, a deeply reclusive teenager living in a claustrophobic apartment in Sweden, watches his father filming an amateur porn film and the slow disintegration of all involved.
The film straddles a rather schizophrenic approach to filmmaking with the stripped down, Dogme/docudrama style stuck against a chopped up, music video aesthetic that creates an alarming, alienating cinematic experience. Not for the faint-hearted, Hole In My Heart has split audiences down the middle. This is the Marmite of Moodysson’s films.
On the one hand we get an open, relatively non-judgemental look at the porn industry, specifically focussing on amateur would-be porn lords who presume that the extreme will get them seen. On the other hand, it appears deeply judgemental, uncovering the moral hole in the heart of modern, Western society (and Sweden in particular). The increasing extremism of the porn being filmed appears to reflect the spiralling disintegration of contemporary life. The confessional, reality television style of some scenes placed next to the escalating self-destructive hedonism seems to provoke the viewer into questioning the obvious disadvantages of the media as well as the less obvious.
The trajectory of Moodysson’s career will be viewed differently based upon personal interpretations of his work. Many will see an auteur becoming increasingly confident with the craft of filmmaking and pushing back the boundaries of the form in a more daring way than most of his contemporaries. Others will view the strength of Moodysson’s early work lies in its humanity, and his ability to create unsentimal, ‘feel-good’ films. Lilya 4-Ever may be seen as the moment the director jumped ship and started espousing form at the expense of character.