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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Lukas Moodysson: The Greatest Director You Don’t Know About

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Mammoth, the latest film from Swedish director Lukas Moodysson. I’ll be reviewing it more fully closer to its release in November, but it re-affirmed a deeply held view of mine: that Moodysson is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers.  Yet when I talk to a lot of people, even film geeks, they aren’t familiar with him or his oeuvre.

In his native Sweden, he has been called the heir apparent to Ingmar Bergman – whose work his films hardly resemble – but here in the United States, he is largely unknown to the majority of filmgoers.  Boy, are they missing out.

Mammoth, his first English-language film, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Michelle Williams, shows once and for all that despite some of the harrowing trials his characters endure, Moodyssson is a humanist at heart.  His command of every aspect of cinema, including his musical choices and his fluid camera, is something that surely cannot be taught and shows his true colors as an auteur and an artiste.

Mammoth spans three countries and focuses on globalization. The film would bring to mindBabel if Moodysson were a lesser filmmaker, but Mammoth is dense and rich, powerful in its subtlety and its evocation of its themes as it draws the audience into a story about the human condition. Mammoth shakes off the Babel comparisons because it never feels like Moodysson is using his characters and story simply as a way to make some grander political point.  Moodysson is a sure enough filmmaker to know that the themes will rise out on their own without having to hit you over the head.

The talents that are in full force in his latest film are evident even in his first, smaller picture called Fucking Amal (or Show Me Love, as it has been re-titled in some places).  With a title like that, one would probably imagine that it is a gratuitous or salacious film, but it’s actually a rather endearing love story that happens to be about a Sapphic crush in high school. Throughout the whole film – and much of his work – Moodysson consistently subverts whatever genre you might think the film is a part of, making all of his films worlds where truly anything can happen and seem believable.  When his films have a happy ending, it seems gratifying because one could see each of his films go in a more depressing direction.

Fucking Amal seems, at first blush, to be a typical high school comedy-drama with a “twist” premise: the loser girl in school has a crush on a more popular girl. The film is set in a town called Amal; the the main characters are bored by their town and wish they lived somewhere where fun things live raves happen. It seems like a standard set-up for an American Pie-style comedy. Moodysson, though, has seen as many American teen films as you have and knows which buttons to press to make you comfortable and then throws curveballs.  It seems clear at first that the popular girl has no lesbian tendencies, but Moodysson crafts the character in a way which makes it seem possible that she could.  The tone remains light throughout, but there is always the possibility of something darker creeping in – and sometimes it does, like when the outcast girl criticizes a wheelchair-bound friend of hers and says things that truly sting and make the viewer uncomfortable.  Moodysson understands that that in all parts of life, there is perpetually the threat of people to be cruel to one another, but he also understand that it does not necessarily make them evil.

While you might be trying to figure out what to make of the film, it is surreptitiously getting under your skin and endearing itself to you. Moodysson does this so masterfully that when the ending comes, I started crying a little bit; not necessarily because what was on the screen was particularly sad or uplifting, but because the film builds to an emotional crescendo and I had an instinctual, reflexive reaction to that. I knew when I watched that film for the first time, about a year and a half ago, that I needed to seek out more of the filmmaker’s work, to see if he just got lucky his first time out.

Moodysson’s next film, Together, is about a mother and two children moving in with her brother when she is abused by her husband. The only problem: her brother happens to live in a commune populated by socialists, homosexuals and would-be revolutionaries.  So the basic set-up seems simple enough: the mother and her two children would help make the people in the commune more “normal” and the revolutionaries and socialists would help to open the minds of the family that moves in.  And, while these things do happen, that would be a very superficial reading of what the movie is about.

Again, the fascinating thing about the film is how Moodysson subverts the audience’s expectations. For one thing, the abusive husband is not just a stereotypical abusive husband and lousy father; he’s a man who ’s trying to desperately to hang on and makes a mistake.  The movie allows us to have sympathy for a man who would be absolutely vilified in another movie.  But this is just another example of Moodysson’s humanism and the way in which he doesn’t judge a person based on one action or one attribute; in Moodysson’s films, people are not simply good or bad.

Just like Fucking Amal, Together builds to an emotional crescendo in a scene where the calm and collected pacifist brother finally allows his true feelings to shine in an eruption of anger mixed with joy. And when it happened, I got goosebumps and my heart started beating faster because Moodysson had built a character with whom I not only sympathized, but empathized with as well.  And, interestingly enough, the actor who plays the brother later went on to play Lutz in Bruno, so clearly Moodysson has quite the eye for talent.

While Together, like his previous film, was a more uplifting movie, Moodysson’s next film, Lilya 4-Ever, is decidedly more grim and depressing.  His first film set primarily outside Sweden, Lilya 4-Ever concerns an impoverished teenage girl in a failing industrial town in an unnamed nation that was once part of the Soviet Republic.  It’s about a girl who can only dream about the places that exist outside of the town she’s lived in her whole life. She never gets to experience anything resembling freedom or happiness, but has to find solace where she can. Circumstances eventually lead to her becoming a part of the teen sex trade and a grim story becomes even more miserable.

Anchored by one of the greatest and bravest performances I’ve ever seen by Oksana Akinshina – who later played a small but pivotal part in The Bourne Supremacy – Lilya 4-Ever is one of the most unrelentingly brutal films I’ve ever seen that is actually still watchable and entertaining. It would be impossible to watch a film like this without there being the possibility of hope present and the character of Lilya is perpetually hopeful despite some of the horrible tribulations she must endure.

Like most of Moodysson’s films, Lilya 4-Ever is dense with themes that are hard to pin down.  There is a lot of religious allegory present in the film, but it’s hard to say what Moodysson’s opinion of religion is; it’s difficult to decide whether he’s trying to say that religion is ultimately good because it gives people a false sense of hope or if that false hope ultimately dooms them and makes them weaker, more susceptible to danger. This one aspect of the film could be debated for hours, as could whether the ending is happy or not.

After Lilya, Moodysson made a gloriously failed experiment called A Hole in My Heart, which is about four crazy individuals in a dirty apartment making a porno film.  It’s graphic and disgusting, but it’s an ambitious experiment in art cinema, trying to make a film without a traditional narrative. It’s nearly impossible to sit through, but I wonder if perhaps that was the point. I can’t really consider it a part of his canon, though, because it is truly just an experiment of a film, a palate-cleanser if you will, preparing himself and his audience for Mammoth.

I need to see the film a few more times and digest its complex storyline and themes a bit longer – hence my not reviewing the film fully for another month – but it’s truly one of the finest films I’ve seen this year and something to be excited for, with exceptional lead performances by Bernal and Williams.  You should be excited for this film, anxious for its release, and if you watch Moodysson’s first three films in preparation, you will be.

– Noah Forrest
October 19, 2009
Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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