movie review by
David Gurevich


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For a long time foreigners have based their concept of Swedish film on Ingmar Bergman, Mr. Gloom himself (let us not forget a dramatic predecessor like Strindberg). Perhaps this was why a well-calculated feel-good film like Lasse Hallström's My Life as a Dog took a lot of people by surprise. Mr. Hallström took a melodramatic family situation that could have easily turned out Bergmanesque and turned it into a growing-up memoir with just the right amount of sugar to keep it from being nauseating. It was inevitable that in Hollywood he should have to double the sugar intake (e.g., Cider House Rules), but that’s what you do if you want to be a player.

But even before My Life as a Dog there was a strange phenomenon called ABBA, which was to Europop what The Monkees were to English-language rock. They were followed by similarly sugar-tuneful exports such as Roxette and Ace of Base, but… well, this is about film, not music. Suffice it to say that ABBA’s, er, artistic heritage is alive and well and will soon be seen on Broadway in a concoction called Mamma Mia.

I’m not throwing this in to show off my pop-art erudition. Together ("Tillsammans"), the new Swedish film by Lukas Moodysson, is very much influenced by ABBA, and uses one of its tunes for a bravura finale that will undoubtedly put his name on every Hollywood studio’s short list.

Together is a not-too-imaginative name for a quasi-hippie commune in a Stockholm suburb in the year 1975. You have it right there, before the opening frames: this is no Easy Rider's pray-for-rain desert outfit. These people are not exactly hippies and they live in a suburb. The opening frame, where the radio announces Francisco Franco is dead, sending the characters into a spontaneous celebration, simply could not help reminding me of the old Saturday Night Live’s sketch where this epochal event was announced as a newsbreak every fifteen minutes. There you have it, again: what was already a joke in America’s cool culture was a very serious matter to these young people. You expect Che and Lenin posters. You expect no TV, plenty of dope (they grow their own, naturally), and heated sociopolitical discussions over beans-with-everything dinner. You don’t expect naked sexual appendages in the kitchen.

The tone is always ironic and bemused, and Moodysson is on the roll when it comes to political satire. Instead of cops-and-robbers, the children play the Torture game, where they take turns being General Pinochet. Pippi Longstocking is debated as a bourgeois character. And Eric, the most politicized commune member, goes to the Royal Palace, where he sings "Internationale" and tries to convert a palace guard to the True Faith. You see, Eric works as a welder in order to be in the avant-garde of the revolution. He has sex with Lena, another member’s wife, on the condition that they would have a political discussion afterwards, and when she welshes on him (hey, she’s just had the greatest orgasm in her life!), he creates a scene – and eventually leaves the commune to join the Baader-Meinhof gang. (Oddly, this detail was omitted from the English subtitles.) In a sense, he is an exception, in that he is the only commune member who is shown outside the commune. Although the script goes to some length to individualize its characters, the main character is the commune itself; we don’t see the members outside their quarters, and this incompleteness renders their conflicts somewhat petty -- which may have been the director’s objective.

But the bickering about who is more left than Trotsky will not suffice for a full-fledged film. The conflict arrives in the form of Goran’s sister Elisabeth, who has left her hard-drinking husband with their two kids. The others reluctantly make room for newcomers, who take over the meditation room (the horror!) The mutual adjustment proceeds apace: Elisabeth becomes the object of seduction for Anna, while Anna’s ex Lasse is a target for amorous gay advances from Klass. Goran stoically listens to Eric and Lena moaning through the wall. The thoroughly bourgeois next-door neighbor watches it all through his binoculars and uses it for his own fantasies. But the broad humor of these scenes is alternated with the truly heartbreaking scenes that involve children.

Moodysson tips his hand early: for a child, even if he is named Tet (as in the offensive), the anti-bourgeois uncertainty of the arrangement is no picnic, and for Elisabeth’s children, Stephan and Eva, it is sheer hell. The scenes where the two are caught in between their neo-hip mother and their boozer father Rolf are striking both in their humanity and their crisp emotional precision. The happy-go-lucky hippy comedy begins to change to a well-observed family drama. To Moodysson’s credit, he alternates drama and comedy with a sure hand -- though, unlike in a Chekhov play, we always know whether we should laugh or cry.

The circle of the characters expands: Rolf finds a lonely old man who delivers (again, without excessive piety) a few homilies -- about, well, the perils of old age and loneliness, what else? -- and drives Rolf away from booze and back to Elisabeth. The sulking Eva finds an admirer -- a dork-like Fredrik from the bourgeois family – who, in turn, brings over his mother. The circle is complete; the commune briefly reproduces itself on an expanded scale, in a friendly game of soccer in the snow where, to the sounds of ABBA, everybody realizes that it doesn’t matter who scored a goal, as long as a goal is scored. It is a little more fun than a traditional series of group-therapy hugs.

What are we to make of all this? Moodysson neither condemns nor idealizes his characters. He directs with a delightfully light touch, never striving for the quasi-solemnity of, say, The Big Chill, and that makes his film more fun. Hey, we were young and we made our share of mistakes; but we did what we could, and damn it, we had some good times. Now, did he really need that ABBA on the soundtrack…?

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]