Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Together

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: impulse buys / In category: 8 of 10 / Overall: 55 of 100


Why buy?

Part of the Lukas Moodysson box set.

The expectation

An acutely observed, po-faced bit of satire.

The actuality

I had a productive and engaging day at work today. I mention this for a reason.

Usually, my working day is eight hours of ennui which I make it through purely by dwelling on whatever movie I watched last and composing a review in my head, structuring it, shaping it, figuring out a good opening sentence or paragraph, a hook that leads into the rest of the article; then fleshing it out, developing it, challenging myself to come up with trenchant observations or pithy remarks. Eight hours of marking time and wanting to be anywhere other than at my desk, at the end of which I amble home, fix something to eat, spend some quality time with Mrs Agitation, then flip on the computer and transcribe the review from my head into Word.

Today, I didn’t have that luxury. Today, I actually enjoyed my job, took satisfaction in my endeavours and saw a positive result. As a result of which, I’m staring at a screen that is blank except for 190 non-film-related words and cursing my employers for putting me in a position whereby I haven’t had the opportunity to marshal my thoughts on ‘Together’.

So, fumbling my way into this write-up, I guess there’s two immediate, superficial approaches. One is to say: ‘Together’ is about a maltreated housewife, Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren), who walks out on her temperamental husband Rolf (Michael Nyqvist) and seeks shelter at Tilsammens (Swedish for “together”), the hippie commune run by her milquetoast brother Göran (Gustaf Hammarsten). Suburbanite Elisabeth and her young children experience a culture clash with their socialist, vegan, pro-feminist, politically active hosts, while the remorseful Rolf tries to mend his ways and rebuild bridges with his family. Hilarity ensues.

The other is to say: Göran is trying maintain an open relationship with the dipsomaniac and emotionally infantile Lena (Anja Lundkvist) while keeping the peace in a settlement full of well-meaning but politically very different drop-outs, from politically aware but terminally naïve Erik (Olle Sarri) – whom Lena moons after – to the openly gay and painfully angst-ridden Klas (Shanti Roney) by way of recently estranged couple Lasse (Ola Rapace) and Anna (Jessica Liedberg). Lasse baits Erik while fending off (or maybe not) Klas’s advances, while bridling at the fact that Anna has embraced lesbianism for what he sees as political rather than sexual, romantic or emotional reasons. Into this melting pot of counter-culture comes suburban housewife Elisabeth. The results are funny, poignant and life-changing.

Both of these descriptions, never mind that they tick the required boxes, are essentially wrong. The first makes ‘Together’ sound like a smug but ultimately schmaltzy culture-clash comedy. The second comes on like a Robert Altman ensemble piece shot through with a bleatingly liberal indie sensibility. The first sounds plotless, the second overplotted. Neither come anywhere close to capturing the charm, wit, intelligence, attention to detail and investment in character and character development that imbues virtually every frame of ‘Together’.

In lesser hands, the characters could have been ciphers. Clichés. Stereotypes. Moodysson, even when painting in the boldest strokes, draws impeccably nuanced performances from his cast, not one performer putting a foot wrong. His script is just as subtle. A Hollywood comedy utilising this scenario would pound the audience into brain-damage with facile life lessons and blatantly manipulative moralising. Moodysson, on the other hand, simply lets his characters interact and observes how they rub off on each other. He never makes fun of their foibles (in fact, their interaction is niftily juxtaposed with the emotional sterility of the disapproving curtain-twitchers who live opposite the commune), but simply presents them as human beings. Flawed, sometimes foolish, but never less than human.

Nor does he ever lose sight of the potential of wry humour as a comment on the human condition. Consider the scene where one of the aforesaid curtain-twitchers spies through binoculars on Anna and Elisabeth swaying drunkenly in what he perceives as a seductive dance; brushing off his wife’s overtures to join him on the sofa, he claims that he’s going to the basement to do some woodwork; downstairs, he takes a wank mag from underneath his bench, seizes a hammer and bashes away at a non-existent project as he fumbles at his belt. Moodysson cuts to his wife, knitting metronomically, her eyes rolling as the hammering becomes more and more frenzied. Aesthetically, this is Robin Askwith territory; yet Moodysson’s deadpan approach to the material renders it comedy gold.

From this throwaway scene, Moodysson develops a beautifully understated subplot regarding the tentative romance that develops between Elisabeth’s socially inept daughter and the curtain-twitchers’ overweight and nerdy son. As he did in ‘Fucking Åmål’, Moodysson is sensitive, responsible and empathetic in his depiction of children sidelined by their peers and rejected as uncool. He refuses to condescend or poke fun.

The non-judgementalism extends to the adults in the cast. Many a director would pitch Rolf as the villain of the piece, particularly when he comes into the sphere of influence of one Birger Andersson (Sten Ljunggren), the fuck-up anti-hero of ‘Talk’. At this point, having seen ‘Talk’, I went all queasy, imagining that Moodysson had set the narrative on course towards a savage and unpalatable ending.

Again, my bad on making snap judgements. Against all the odds – ie. the memories of anyone who’s ever seen ‘Talk’ and winced at the gallows-humour ending – Moodysson redeems Birger as a man who just wants to do the right thing. His intensity and insistence initially comes across as creepy, but there’s a moment late in the film where, to his own discomfort and knowing that he’ll be overlooked and left alone, he deliberately and gallantly removes himself from the equation the better to allow Rolf, a man he barely knows, a shot at reconciliation. Like so much of ‘Together’, it’s an unforced, candidly observed moment which proves that Moodysson’s characters are capable of demonstrating their best even if the vagaries of life have compromised and wrongfooted them.

‘Together’ is sublime. It is the loveliest and most unexpected cinematic discovery I’ve made this year.

2 comments:

Simon said...

It was pretty great. Performances spot on, witty and sweet and not exploitivee (which is a blessing in a movie about a commune).

Neil Fulwood said...

I think that's why I loved it so much - it had the potential to be either twee or exploitative (or just take the piss out the characters instead of engaging with them); the '70s setting could easily have come off as cheesy and cliched. But it sidesteps all of these potential failings and emerges as a warm, witty, beautifully acted film.