Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Show Me Love (a.k.a. Fucking Åmål)

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: impulse buys / In category: 7 of 10 / Overall: 54 of 100


Why buy?

Part of the Lukas Moodysson box set.

The expectation

A low-key relationships drama. Potentially downbeat. Ingmar Bergman with a four pack of cheap lager, a spliff and some dance music on the iPod.

The actuality

Neil Fulwood, write out 500 times “I will not come to such bitchy snap judgements on a film I have not watched yet.” And when you’ve finished that, write out 500 hundred times “Lukas Moodysson’s ‘Show Me Love’ is a joyous and life-affirming gem of a movie.”

Or how about I spend 500 words or so explaining why and get let off detention? Okay? Cool.

But before I start composing this essay – let’s give it the working title of ‘How I Learned to Overcome My Doubts and Love This Movie’ by Mr Agitation aged 38 and a quarter – let’s consider the title. It was titled ‘Show Me Love’ for its UK and US distribution (after the song by Robyn that plays during the closing credits). It’s indigenous title is ‘Fucking Åmål’. Already we’re up against a contradiction of sorts – it’s not the only one, and in its own small way it’s part of the pleasure of the movie.

Now, there are several reasons for a studio or a distributor to retitle a movie. (You know the Macaulay Culkin/Anna Chlumsky named-after-a-song barf-fest ‘My Girl’? The original title was ‘Born Jaundiced’. Need I say more?) In this case I can think of two reasons. One: ‘Fucking Åmål’ has two diacritic rings in the title, a linguistic WTF to English speaking ticket buyers. Two: it has “fucking” in the title. I list these reasons not necessarily in order.

So: why is it called ‘Fucking Åmål’? Well, Åmål is the small Swedish town in which the film is set. The grown-ups seem to like the place (it’s a quiet, rustic and uneventful place, the kind of town where you can leave your door unlocked and not come home to your electrical goods stolen and a turd where the Persian rug used to be). The kids think it sucks. They dream of the bright lights in Stockholm. (I’ve been to Stockholm, btw, and – brother! – it ain’t no party town.) It’s the kids who have coined the title. Fucking Åmål – and they say it with such vehemence because they equate their geographical basis with who they are (three titles into Moodysson’s filmography and I’m feeling confident that this is one of his central concerns as a director); they blame Åmål for the drabness of their lives.

Principle among these kids are 14-going-on-30 drop-dead gorgeous blonde Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) – all fashionably bored insouciance and a pout to die for – and her older sister Jessica (Erica Carlson). Elin and Jessica are the mainstays of the too-cool-for-school crowd. On the other side of the high school tracks, we have the mousy Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg). The unpopular and socially awkward scion of well-meaning but cringingly embarrassing parents, Agnes has moved around a lot as a result of her father’s work and has never fitted in anywhere. Her self-doubt isn’t helped by the burgeoning emotional feelings she is beginning to develop towards other girls. Specifically Elin.

Agnes’s 16th birthday party finds her at her lowest ebb. When Elin and Jessica crash her non-existent party, Elin standing to win 20 krona from her sister if she kisses Agnes for a dare, the resulting humiliation leaves Agnes so despondent she begins self-harming.

Still with me?

I can imagine that anyone who hasn’t seen the film and has got this far with my review is probably convinced that ‘Show Me Love’/‘Fucking Åmål’ is an archetypal slab of Scandinavian miserablism. Unrequited love, small town parochialism, guilt, shame, self-harm. Bar tender – a pint of hemlock and a packet of razor blades, if you please!

BUT!

Something clicks in Elin’s mind/subconscious/heart. She goes back to apologise to Agnes. She experiences the same emotional pull towards another girl. Suddenly it’s Elin who’s as confused, conflicted and vulnerable as Agnes. With the, ahem, “example” of Jessica’s relationship with the oikish and unlikeable Markus (Stefan Hörberg) being held up as an utterly inappropriate indicator of, ahem, “normality”, Elin sublimates her feelings for Agnes by accepting the advances of nice-but-dim 17-year-old Johan (Mathias Rust).

At this point, about two-thirds of the way through a scant 89-minute running time, ‘Show Me Love’/‘Fucking Åmål’ had achieved such an emotional complexity and honesty I was astounded that Moodysson (almost 30 at the time of filming, and a heterosexual male) had managed to empathise so completely with two characters, half his age, struggling with the acceptance of their sexuality. That he managed to draw such poignant and naturalistic performances from his young cast is equally impressive.

The last third of the movie just took my response to a new level. I’d been impressed. I’d appreciated it on a number of levels. Come the end, I just plain loved it.

Now, I said there were contradictions. The first is the original title. ‘Fucking Åmål’ is an abrasive, almost confrontational title. It comes on like a Larry Clarke film. It wants to provoke you, rub your nose in it, promise you bad behaviour and make it all the worse for its perpetrators being underage. And yet it plays out as a beautifully nuanced, heartfelt romance. (No spoilers, but there’s a scene in the back of a car which wins the Agitation of the Mind Best Kiss Award in All of Cinema, and you can keep ‘From Here to Eternity’! It’s a brief and commendably non-exploitative scene that goes from tentative to passionate to agonisingly unconsummated within maybe a minute.)

There is also an aesthetic contradiction. Moodysson employs an understated visual and directorial style at all times. He never strives for iconography or the obviously cinematic. His immersion of the audience into the lives of his characters is absolute and he does nothing to remind you that you’re watching a film. Right up till the ending which, conceptually, is as wish-fulfilment/crowd-pleasing/borderline manipulative as, say, the finale of ‘Dirty Dancing’ or ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’.

And yet, whereas those films reinforce their artificiality by dint of the lachrymose excesses of their denouements, Moodysson somehow – and I’m damned if I know how – manages to keep his aesthetic and his emotional honesty intact. Somehow he synthesises the realism of his portrait of disaffected youth with the feelgood factor of an unabashedly old fashioned happy ending, sending his audience out on an absolute high while never jeopardising the integrity of his characters, his story or his film. A film which, it has to be said, is a small marvel of a debut.

3 comments:

Hans A. said...

My favorite scene in this film is when the little boy and his mother have a conversation about the meaning of the word "gay." Like most of the film, the scene is so subtle but is extremely charged. I see a lot of Moodyson's cinema being about freedom, and he kind of exposes our fears and bias which prevent us from being free. He was certainly able to capture it with his young actors. A stunning debut. Great work as usual Neil and I hope all is well.

Neil Fulwood said...

Absolutely. An amazing scene, and so sensitively handled. It strikes me that at his best, Moodysson is an observer - a witness - rather than a moralist or a commentator.

Z said...

RIP Stefan Hörberg who gave us the wonderfully observed cameo potrait of Markus.

Zala