Wednesday, December 03, 2014

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Anita: Swedish Nymphet

I haven’t seen Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’ – or ‘Nymph()maniac’ if you want to dabble in that oooh the middle of the title looks like a vagina nonsense that is really no cleverer than French Connection UK hanging signs saying “FCUK” outside there shops, and that frankly is not very clever at all – and the reason I haven’t seen Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’ is that I can’t shake the feeling that it’s basically a remake of Torgny Wickman’s ‘Anita: Swedish Nymphet’ dragged out to four hours.

Wickman’s film clocks in at 95 minutes and it’s difficult to imagine any treatment of this subject matter being substantially longer. Difficult, and a little bit depressing.

There was something I wasn’t prepared for in approaching a film by the man who made ‘The Lustful Vicar’ and ‘Swedish Sex Games’ – a film, moreover, that has the phrase “Swedish nymphet” as its subtitle – and that was how fucking dour it was going to be. Aided by Hans Dittmer’s almost brutally utilitarian cinematography, Wickman presents a vision of urban Sweden that’s as loveless as any of the broken concrete UK landscapes that Ken Loach has given us, and about as far from the dreamy romanticism of, say, ‘Elvira Madigan’ as it’s possible to get without, oh I don’t know, inviting Lars von Trier to the party and assuring him the ratings board is nothing to worry about.

In other words, ‘Anita’ is a joyless, unsexy film. And when your leading lady is one of the most doe-eyed, seductive, voluptuous brunettes ever to have sashayed in front of a movie camera, making an unsexy film can only mean one of two things: (a) you absolutely meant to because you were taking a sober and serious-minded approach to the material, or (b) you were basically a shit director.

I repeat at this point that Torgny Wickman was the man behind ‘The Lustful Vicar’ and ‘Swedish Sex Games’. Oh, and ‘Love Play: That’s How We Do It’. And ‘Practice Makes Perfect’. Not to mention the supposed documentary ‘Language of Love’, i.e. the porno movie that Travis Bickle takes Betsy to see in ‘Taxi Driver’.

And yet … and yet …

I can’t shake the feeling that with ‘Anita’, Wickman wanted to make a serious film. The style is pure social realism. There’s no attempt to prettify anything. Even Anita’s brief sanctuary at a house communally shared by a group of orchestra members presents their lives in such a ‘kitchen sink’ fashion that it de-romanticizes the frequent recourse to classical music on the soundtrack during this section of the film. There’s a moment where Anita and the sympathetic Erik (Stellan Skarsgård – yes, that Stellan Skarsgård) take a walk through a field and past a lake while ‘Spring’ from Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ prances away on the soundtrack and it should be the biggest cliché you can imagine, but Dittmer leaches every bit of colour from the scene, leaves it flat and drab and gives you nowhere to hang the word “pastoral”.

Likewise the loosely assembled collection of scenes that make up the first third – scenes of Lindberg’s Anita approaching various men, being warned off by various girlfriends, suffering mockery as she trawls the streets, stoically dealing with being treated as a pariah at school, and wordlessly sitting through endless scoldings by her parents, who delight in pointing up all the ways her butter-wouldn’t-melt younger sister is so much better than her – are genuinely demoralizing to watch, and that’s before we factor in the variety of horrible examples of masculinity with whom she debases herself. And by God, Lindberg captures every nuance of her character’s self-loathing and abject loneliness.

On the other hand, the plot often drifts into silliness, particularly the late-in-the-game revelation of Erik as a student of psychology who takes it upon himself to psychoanalyse and determine a cure for Anita’s nymphomania, all the while falling in love with her. Had the character remained an earnest and slightly shy musician who takes an interest in her on a sympathetic level rather than becoming romantically entangled, the dynamic might have been less forced. The horribly contrived dialogues about the psychology of nymphomania might also have been reduced to something meaningful. As it is, most of Erik’s screeds exist of the level of “ooooh, aren’t we being the daring young early 70s things, having all these frank conversations about nymphomania, ooooh madam, let me set it again: nymphomania, nymphomania, nymphomania”. Ditto, the eventual Anita/Erik consummation is every kind of excruciating given the total lack of chemistry between the leads.

Two other scenes seem awkward and ill-suited to serious filmmaking: a striptease that Anita stages to provoke her parents (their non-response is simply unbelievable), and a lesbian scene that I’m guessing was shoehorned in because the producer turned up on set on day, cleared his throat, tapped Wickman on the shoulder and barked an instruction along the lines of “Hey buddy, I’m funding a sex movie here, now shoot some girl-girl stuff, pronto!”

Still, there’s a solemn and non-judgmental piece of work operating throughout about 60% of ‘Anita’ and it seldom feels like the exploitationer I took it for. The nudity is intermittent at best and there’s little actual sex. What there is won’t trouble the cold setting on your shower. It’s not an entertaining 95 minutes and I personally can’t imagine sitting through it again. Nor does its final analysis of nymphomania go much beyond Anita’s own description of the condition: more or less, “I feel worthless so I sleep with someone, and it helps for a while then I feel ashamed of myself so I do it again”. What the film does prove, however, is that while Lindberg’s B-movie legacy is founded mainly on her looks and the sheer notoriety of at least half of her filmography, she was more than capable of crafting a character onscreen and communicating that character’s inner feelings on an emotional and empathetic level.

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