Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Hole in My Heart

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: impulse buys / In category: 10 of 10 / Overall: 57 of 100

Why buy?

Part of the Lukas Moodysson box set.

The expectation

An endurance course of a movie.

The actuality

I’ve not seen it, but between ‘Lilja 4-Ever’ and ‘A Hole in My Heart’, Lukas Moodysson co-directed the documentary ‘Terrorists: The Kids They Sentenced’, about police brutality, judicial example-making and the media furore surrounding anti-globalisation protests in Gothenburg in 2001. I’m going to make a point of tracking this film down, because I’m coming to believe – perhaps more so than the work of any other filmmaker I can think of – that Moodysson’s filmography has to be approached sequentially.

‘Fucking Åmål’ dealt with potentially downbeat subject matter (sexual uncertainties, social ostracism, self-harming) but delivered an affirmative ending. ‘Together’ trawled the lives of a collection of misfits and found an essential humanity. The experience of making ‘Lilja 4-Ever’ and ‘Terrorists’, though, seems to have changed the direction of Moodysson’s aesthetic.

‘Lilja 4-Ever’ is dedicated, in its end credits, to all the children of the world exploited by the sex trade. This is an important starting point in any review of ‘A Hole in My Heart’. It is also important, going into the film, to remember that Moodysson has always demonstrated a feminist sensibility: allowing for Elisabeth as main character by proxy from the ensemble cast in ‘Together’, a defining characteristic of Moodysson’s filmography thus far is the female protagonist.

‘A Hole in My Heart’ challenges from the off by having no clearly defined central character, while its redacted cast (it’s essentially a four-hander) doesn’t allow it the status of an ensemble piece. Still, viewed chronologically in Moodysson’s filmography, Tess (Sanna Bråding) is identifiable as the focal point for audience involvement. Tess, to put it bluntly, acts in pornographic movies and it’s for this purpose that she arrives at the pustulantly grubby flat shared by middle-aged wannabe smut director Rikard (Thorsten Flinck) and his permanently depressed goth son Erik (Björn Almroth). Also on the invite list is Rikard’s stud muffin best mate Geko (Goran Marjanovic), Tess’s co-star in said filmic endeavour.

What follows is a 93-minute visual and aural assault on the viewer. The imagery is often extreme. An early scene has Tess describe a surgical procedure for vaginal reconstruction; Moodysson inserts footage of the actual procedure (in queasy, glistening close-up) at several points during the course of the film. Repulsed yet? Stick around (but keep the sick bags handy) because we haven’t got to the vomiting, urination, cockroaches, earthworms, smeared food and sex toys yet.

If anyone’s still with me, (a) thank you for your commitment to this blog; and (b) I will completely understand if you tune out now when I say that ‘A Hole in My Heart’ is an artistically valid film that I would cautiously – very, very cautiously – recommend. But only, as I said earlier, when viewed in its proper place in Moodysson’s body of work.

The last time I took a shot at defining art on this blog (in the context, if I remember correctly, of the Powell & Pressburger film ‘A Matter of Life and Death’) I said something like “art is when a work functions equally on an intellectual, emotional and aesthetic level”. If nothing else, this kind of platitude should serve as a warning that anyone who attempts to define art is on a hiding to nowhere.

Art ennobles. Art celebrates. But art can also howl in despair. Art is a label we can put on some of the most beautiful things ever created. But art can also be the blood and the guts and the gore and the filth. Art also serves to provoke, to challenge, to discomfort, to upset, to cause controversy, to force debate as to its own definition, its own validity and its own purpose. Because if art does not do these things, then it will only ever mirror the positive aspects of humanity and therefore be a lie.

Art can encompass works that are anti-art. Art can aspire to an anti-aesthetic. Consider minimalist and atonal music – the opposite end of the spectrum from, say, a Beethoven symphony or a Wagner opera. But still as important. Or the stripped-down credo of the Dogme 95 filmmakers – a world apart from the big-screen excesses of David Lean. But still important.

Another thing needs to be factored into any discussion of art (and this is why I can’t emphasize enough the importance of approaching ‘A Hole in My Heart’ having watched Moodysson’s preceding films in order): so much depends on context. I know that sounds like a lot of wishy-washy, liberal, Guardian-reading crap, but context is what separates the degradation the characters suffer in, say, Ruggero Deodato’s ‘House on the Edge of the Park’ from the degradation the characters suffer in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ and renders one of them an (albeit exceptionally well-made) exploitation movie and the other an important work of film art. Deodato delivers violence and sexual violence and does so for its own sake, as well as for the sake of generating ticket sales. Pasolini delivers violence and sexual violence (as well as scenes of abject humiliation and caprophilia) – and believe me, I approached ‘Salo’ a few years ago and ended up watching it in 15 minute segments over a week; that was the only way I could get through it without being physically sick or lapsing into profound depression; the imagery of ‘Salo’ is much much worse than anything on the DPP’s video nasties list – but does so to deliver a hammerblow against fascism, the marriage of de Sade’s original text with the WWII setting of Pasolini’s film providing a bitterly ironic commentary on the political climate of Italy at the time Pasolini made the film. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that both films are hard to watch, both rub the audience’s face in it and both challenge the propriety of what a “responsible” filmmaker should or shouldn’t depict, yet one is art because of its context and the other isn’t.

I’m 1,000 words into this piece and I’m in great danger of writing myself into a corner. Either that or deviating so far from the business at hand – a write-up of ‘A Hole in My Heart’ – that the point will irretrievably be lost.

I feel I should talk about such mainstays of the conventional film review as acting, direction, cinematography, narrative, characterisation and mise-en-scene. But ‘A Hole in My Heart’ raises a huge and dirty middle finger to such concerns – and does so for a reason. ‘A Hole in My Heart’ (the title itself should tip you off that you’re not supposed to like it) is an anti-film. Its subject is the lowest exposition of filmmaking as an artform: the porno. (And yet, perversely, the porno is perhaps the most honest and unpretentious example of the medium: it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a litany of sexual activity filmed, edited and distributed for the sole purpose of aiding masturbation.) It is filmed using the kind of basic equipment, shoddy location, bad lighting and limited technique that characterizes your average skin flick. Its characters are the kind of people you would imagine being involved in such an undertaking: Tess, the exploited commodity, convincing herself that Rikard will recommend her to a producer in the mainstream film industry; Rikard, the misogynist whose issues with his dead wife and inability to communicate with or provide direction for his son are the root cause of a project undertaken as both a petty power trip and an exegesis of his self-loathing; and Geko, the narcissist whose muscular physicality belies the fact that he’s terminally ill.

‘Lilja 4-Ever’ was Moodysson’s scream of protest against a system of underworld activity that targets vulnerable children and viciously exploits them (his script was based on an actual case). ‘A Hole in My Heart’ is his scream of protest against a society that lets this happen – that lets any and all bad things happen – because it’s too busy burying its nose in shallow concerns, wanking off over porn, fixating on ‘Big Brother’, stuffing itself with food, numbing itself with alcohol, alienating its children, shitting in its own backyard, making a puke-ridden and piss-stained embarrassment of itself. Moodysson’s film is a slap in the face, a knee to the groin. If it makes you feel soiled and disgusted and angry, that’s because it’s meant to. If it comes off as challenging and difficult and unpleasant, that’s because Moodysson made a conscious aesthetic decision to that effect.

You are not supposed to like this film.

In this respect, it succeeds too well. With an IMDb rating of 4.5 and a backlash of critical disapproval that was already frenzied before the film had even been premiered, ‘A Hole in My Heart’ did no favours for Moodysson’s reputation. And I must admit, in all honesty, had I chosen it as my inaugural Moodysson film from the box set – had I not formed an understanding of his artistic trajectory over four feature films – I would be writing a very different review right now. A hostile and vehement one.

Good buy/bad buy?

The box set as a whole: thunderingly good buy. ‘Fucking Åmål’ and ‘Together’ are films I can see myself returning to again and again until they become old friends. ‘Lilja 4-Ever’ I will return to only very occasionally and my heart will break for Lilja each time. Right now I can’t honestly say that I’m in any hurry for a second viewing of ‘A Hole in My Heart’. Maybe once in more, in four or five years’ time, and then only for the luminescent Sanna Bråding’s provision of the vaguest semblance of humanity the film has to offer.

BUT. I spent a tenner (about $15.50) on a four film box set that introduced me to a director I knew nothing of a few weeks ago and whom I now regard as one of the most important European talents currently at work. I will definitely be tracking down ‘Terrorists’ as well as his most recent films ‘Container’ and ‘Mammoth’.


Hans A. said...

Wow! Congrats, Neil. This is a problematic film for a lot of people, and I find it commendable that you took the time and gave some real insight into this film.

I don't know how different my take is on A Hole in my Heart from yours; but we do differ philosophically in regards to art, the artist, and the viewer. I see this film as four people who really love each other yet utterly hate who he/she is. They are unable to connect on any intimate level, because each cannot find it within him/herself as capable of being loved. In other words, each doesn't feel a lovable person yet each is filled with love to give. Hence the ironic title. They treat each other with extreme acts of both love and hate.

Always great reading, Neil, and I always enjoy visiting. Take care.

Simon said...

I'd have to watch Salo before I can watch this. Get the worst of it over.

If you have Netflix, I think the documentary is on there. I think.

冰微 said...


Neil Fulwood said...

Hans - thanks for commenting. I kind of have an inbuilt worry sensor that goes into alert mode the moment I hit 1500 words on a review. I convince myself that I'm waffling, that I've gone on too long already and that nobody'll be interested in reading it if it gets much longer. That alarm went off while I was writing this piece. I'd originally planned to write a bit more about the individual characters - how Geko tries to encourage Rikard to rebuild bridges with Erik only for them to bodge it when they try to get him interested in shooting and he obviously isn't into it; or when Geko tries to persuade Tess to give Erik his first experience, and instead she tries to reach out to him emotionally. Or the way that Tess returns to Rikard's apartment despite fleeing earlier because she sees something in their lifestyle, as repellent as it may be, that's lacking in the normal, stultifyingly boring world of supermarkets and carparks.

They really do want to communicate, to give and receive affection - you're spot on in pointing that out - but the tragedy is that they can't quite achieve it so instead try to fill the gap with extremes of behaviour.

I found 'A Hole in My Heart' difficult but worth taking the time and effort to engage with.

Simon - approach 'Salo' with extreme caution and a strong stomach.