Together

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

TOGETHER

4/10

Tillsammans
Sweden 2000
director / script : Lukas Moodysson
cinematography : Ulf Brantas
editing : Michal Leszczylowski, Fredrik Abrahamsen
lead actors : Michael Nyqvist, Lisa Lindgren, Gustaf Hammarsten, Ola Norell
106 minutes

Together begins with a shot of a man reading in bed, quietly turning the pages for a couple of seconds before we SMASH ZOOM into a CLOSEUP of his BEARDED SWEDISH FACE! This is Moodysson’s “thing” – his trick, his directorial trademark (he hopes). He used it a lot in his debut Fucking Amal (aka Show Me Love, 1998), a nicely rough-edged tale of teenage lesbian love, and he does it in virtually every scene of this follow-up. Zoom after zoom after zoom – is he planning a career in retro Italian horror cheapies?

If so, let’s hope he’s he told Ingmar Bergman, who has described him as a ‘young master’ in what one hopes was an aside of deadpan sarcasm. There’s little in Together to justify such praise from such a source – this is, to take the charitable view, a frothy little comedy about a Swedish commune in the mid-70s. Except the commune stuff is really just background – the collective may be called ‘Together,’ but the final freeze-frame underlines that the film is really about a much more orthodox form of ‘togetherness,’ with just two people in shot.

This image completes a plot-circle that kicks off with thirtyish hausfrau Elisabeth (Lindgren) walking out on her violent husband Rolf, taking kids Stefan (Sam Kessel) and Eva (Emma Sammuelsson) as she seeks refuge with her brother Goran (Hammarsten), the bearded bookworm from the opening shot. As Rolf mopes in unfamiliar solitude, Elisabeth has her eyes opened to a new world of personal and political liberation. The house resounds with political debate – Olle Sarri’s firebrand rich-kid Erik spouts Maoist dogma – and Elisabeth explores her sexuality via Anna (Jessica Liedberg), who has recently ‘decided’ she’s a lesbian to the bemusement of her too-cool-for-school husband Lasse (Norell). Meanwhile Stefan and Eva, like the rest of the household’s kids, watch the grown-ups’ politically-correct shenanigans with a baffled contempt …

“God, all adults are idiots,” snorts Eva, and this is the level at which Moodysson’s script operates. It may be a mistake to read too much into Together, but attempts to enjoy it on a superficial, jokey level keep coming up against a nasty edge that sours much of the humour – all the laughs seem to be at various characters’ expense. Swedish critic Gunnar Rehlin commented in Variety that “the atmosphere and events ring very true.” Moodysson and cinematographer Brantas do evoke a convincingly retro ‘atmosphere’ in the collective’s household – but this viewer wouldn’t have been surprised if Rehlin had lambasted Together’s view of 70s Scando radicalism as a satirical, cartoonish travesty.

As a portrait of a ‘radical’ collective, the movie looks deliberately primitive and stylised, especially when compared with, say, The Idiots. It isn’t that perennial joker Lars Von Trier was especially interested in what a collective is or how it operates – but he set up some challenging characters and situations, allowing the actors sufficient space to bring it all to life. There’s nothing in Together to compare with the savage emotion of Idiots’ hard-won, unforgettably moving climax in which a damaged, battered wife unwisely returns to her former ‘home’ and ‘family.’

Moodysson’s film is fast-moving, with nicely fluid use of rapid dissolves between scenes, and it does have some genuinely striking moments – such as when Goran, meekly bringing his uncaring wife some food as she reclines in bed, impulsively lets it drop all over her face. But this is a rare moment of unexpected spontaneity, and the picture mainly relies on the broadest of caricatures, such as the ludicrously naïve Erik (figure-of-fun founder of the ‘Communist, Marxist, Leninist Revolutionary League’ who leaves to join the Baader-Meinhof gang), or conservative nosey-neighbour Ragnar (Claes Hartelius), slugging his son Fredrik (Henrik Lundstrom) at the slightest provocation.

Ragnar’s wife Margit (Therese Brunnander) is the only character who shows much in the way of surprising depths, but the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with her kind of intelligence, preferring to linger on the hapless Rolf. The only working-class male on view, this Ben Gazarra type is a brawling, hotheaded wifebeater. He even sports a tight T-shirt proclaiming ‘Made In Sweden’ (just in case anybody misses the point) making for an appropriately heavy-handed image for the movie’s poster – superficially striking, but ultimately misleading. Moodysson presents Rolf with a vision of his potential future in terminally depressed old loner Birger (Sten Ljunggren), who admits “My life is shit,” and proclaims the movie’s theme: “Porridge together is better than pork cutlets alone,” as if those are the only choices available.

There doesn’t seem to be any attempt to handle or even understand any of the issues so blithely raised by Moodysson (“I think contemporary art is often quite uninteresting,” he brags.) Anna’s ‘realisation’ of her lesbian tendencies is played strictly for laughs, and she’s even ‘punished’ by having her husband Lasse unexpectedly reveal similar traits. Cuckold Goran’s gentle pacifism becomes a lampoon when he’s given with a nonsensical speech comparing human society to ‘one big porridge,’ delivered to an audience of embarrassed children.

And it’s only the kids who escape (what seems to be) Moodysson’s scathing satire – he shows a distinct Wim Wenders “children are great, aren’t they” attitude, in both his films and his comments in interview (“I think having children makes you more intelligent … As a father, I can only make important things.”) Here Stefan, Eva and co are presented as instinctive conservatives, rebelling against the adults’ diktats on pacifism and vegetarianism by playing with war toys and walking around with banners proclaiming “We want meat!”

At the children’s urging, the adults eventually relent from one of their rules and buy an old TV set – and the only program we see them watching is suspiciously educational, suspiciously look-how-television-is-good-for-kids. This is the moment where you seriously start to wonder about Moodysson’s motives – at other times, you wonder if he’s really thought about what he’s doing at all. At the end, Rolf is presented as a reformed character, setting up a potential rapprochement with his wife and kids – but it’s at this precise moment that we (and he) realise he’s left the elderly Birger sitting in a car, alone, all night, in the depths of the “freezing” Swedish winter. Not only is the old codger miraculously free of hypothermia, he’s well enough for a football kickabout!

As the movie ends with everybody charging around in the snow, ABBA’s ‘SOS’ swells on the soundtrack in what’s clearly intended as a lovely, upbeat climax designed to send audiences bouncing out of the cinema on a wave of people-are-great-after-all euphoria. Having been so cruelly denies Christmas presents, Stefan and Eva have finally got what they really wanted. If only we could share their confidence.

July 11th, 2001
(seen at the Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, 9-Jul-01)
by Neil Young
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