The best way to describe much of Lukas Moodysson’s work is as if Lars Von Trier didn’t have contempt for his fellow man. Perhaps this stems from the fact that Moodysson was originally a poet. There’s a great sense of empathy and lyricism that flows through his strongest works. The Swedish filmmaker does have a peculiar stumble into a “difficult” middle phase. Suddenly delivering a duo of films which do much to remind a viewer of an awkward and infuriating student filmmaker diving headfirst into their enfant terrible period.
After this, Moodysson swiftly course corrects back into the land of linear filmmaking, in which one of his later features becomes perhaps his most endearing tale. What makes this collection, so beguiling isn’t just each entry’s ability to lurch from fondly sensitive to tragically depressing. Moodysson’s filmography still stands out due to its cultural relevance. These are films more than willing to tackle themes of sexuality, politics, celebrity and even spirituality. Yet the handling of the ideas, especially when considering the original releases of some of these films, strike an eerie timeliness which reminds a viewer why The Guardian considered him one of the best working filmmakers in the early 00s.
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The collection starts with very humble beginnings with Show Me Love (1998), also known as Fucking Amal. This classically told love story involves an intelligent, yet awkward teenage girl named Agnes, who finds her feelings towards Elin, a popular yet volatile classmate, may be reciprocated. Elin however struggles with her feelings towards Agnes, for more than a few reasons. The fact that she is unsure about her sexuality is one of them.
Show Me Love is the perfect primer to Moodysson’s work. Peering through the grainy film noise shows a humble and sensitive film which captures the intensity of teenage feelings of love, loneliness, and boring small-town living. Moodysson’s focus on youth’s intimate yet unpredictable feelings is his strongest running trait. This aspect is enjoyably shown here. The young performances are sincere, and the overall commanding use of form only enhances the energy. The handheld cinematography uses tight close-ups to capture the potent emotions on screen, while much of the film is punctuated with almost jarring hard cuts. These elements combine to help replicate the anxious energy of youth.
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Show Me Love runs very much in the same vein as the early movies of Shane Meadows. Both Moodysson and Meadows capture the growing pains of adolescence with a notable honesty that feels so far removed from the American teen films being released at the time. Show Me Love’s frank views on LGBTQ+ relationships for instance, still manage to feel more relevant now than half the cultural discourse cluttering the current feeds of social media. The emotions expressed feel as authentic as the nostalgic 90’s teen clothing on display. I say this as a good thing.
Moodysson’s ability to accurately tap into socio-political commentary continues in the 2000s with Together (2000). Set in 1970s Sweden, the film deal with a leftist commune who have decided to separate themselves from the prominent materialistic lifestyle. When the sister of the commune’s leader joins the group, following domestic abuse from her husband, the introduction of more family members disrupts the already fragile structure of the group.
Together feels faintly reminiscent of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots (1997), a film involving a middle-class, anti-bourgeois group of friends who pretend to behave like they are developmentally disabled to challenge the establishment. Unlike The Idiots, Together doesn’t seek cheap shock value and emotional brutality to challenge societal norms. Instead, Together pokes fun at liberal self-righteousness, while also emphasising that our ability to compromise is among our most vital forces in the quest for contentment. This time around Moodysson switches some of his formalist techniques. While the short sharp crash zooms from Show Me Love remains, Together is loaded with fading transitions and colour inserts, and the film’s humour benefits from this delivery, particularly in more sensitive scenes. A sequence involving a character’s drinking problem becomes more memorable, just because Moodysson considers dreamy fade over a straight cut.
Humour and empathy are the strongest elements of the film. Together is quick to highlight the ugly rigidness of conservatism and the flighty idealism of splintered socialists. Slowly the children of the film’s involved families become a collective voice of reason, amusingly demonstrating what can be achieved through communication and understanding while the grown-ups lose themselves within their pockets of inflexible absurdity. The whole approach is good-natured, allowing the film’s heavier aspects to be easily taken on board.
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This cannot be said for Lilya 4-Ever (2002). Even 20 years since its initial release, Moodysson’s third film is still a weighty punch to the gut. Based loosely on the true sex trafficking case of Danguolė Rasalaitė, Lilya 4-Ever tells the story of 16-year-old Lilya, whose life of poverty takes an even more dramatic turn after her mother abandons her for a better life in the United States. Lilya soon forms a bond with the younger teen Volodya, a sweet-natured yet suicidal boy due to the violent abuse from his father.
Lilya 4-Ever is such a 180 from Moodysson’s first two films that one could claim insurance from the whiplash. While it deals with the topic of sex trafficking poignantly and sensitively, there’s an unrelenting grimness that is difficult to shake after watching. Oppressive from the start, Moodysson’s intimate visual style ensures the brutalist Russian surroundings feel suffocating. The only elevation in the film comes from dream sequences, which only occur due to a pivotal moment. Lilya 4-Ever is at times oppressively bleak, and yet it never leaves the kind of bad taste in the mouth which can come from other filmmakers. Simply due to the amount of empathy the film exhibits. Lilya is naïve, but not obnoxious. Volodya’s innocence could be cloying in the wrong film. Here it is pitched well as the tragic heart of a difficult story. Yet again, Moodysson’s work with his young cast ensures the film remains engaging despite its distressing subject matter.
Continuing the long trek into feel-bad territory, A Hole in My Heart (2004) and Container (2006) both suitably find themselves on the same disc. Not only do both films try to ask questions about sex and celebrity, but the two are also Moodysson’s most experimental works. Neither feature is interested in any formal type of plot structure, both favouring uncompromising and oppressive uses of visual filmmaking instead. If a person is asked where to start with the director, these two films are certainly not the ones to recommend.
A Hole in My Heart is hellbent on utilising all manner of shock factors over anything truly substantial. A disorientated tale about three people making a crude porn feature while a fourth character mopes about the situation in the room next door, Moodysson uses a handful of film techniques to distance the audience from any real connection to the characters. The film screeches with white noise. Graphical close-ups of genital reconstruction are inserted into the movie, while characters block scenes of their movie with toy dolls. The film is effectively dismal, but it also never really amounts to much. As with so many avant-garde features such as this, there will always be a handful of fans claiming such a film is daring cinema. However, I’m not so sure what one can gain from having one person vomit into someone else’s mouth.
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Container fares better. A grainy, monochrome collection of disassociating images set against the breathy narration of Jena Malone. Moodysson says himself that Container perhaps works better as he has found it on YouTube: chopped into short segments that can be dipped into at a viewer’s leisure. Watching the film is at times a dreary slog. There’s only so much stream-of-consciousness poetry that can pique one’s interest. The moments in which the narration poses intriguing questions on living as a woman inside a man’s body is, like all Moodysson’s work, incredibly timely. The film’s most entertaining moment is when it breaks the fourth wall, with Malone addressing herself as the main character. However, such enjoyable segments are very rare and despite only being 70 minutes, the film certainly ensures that you feel every second.
Mammoth (2009) is a welcoming return to a linear narrative; an interlacing set of stories centred around the dynamics of a well-off family unit. The theme of globalism is centralised within the movie as the game developer’s husband (Gael Garcia Bernal) sets off to Asia to seal a new development deal. Meanwhile, his wife (Michelle Williams), an experienced surgeon, is deeply focused on saving a child who has ended up in the ICU. Her long hours mean that her child is left with a nanny for most of the day. The nanny’s children however are halfway across the world and her job as a child carer is providing welfare for them, even though they rarely see her.
There’s a starkness to the message found in Mammoth. Something that has only gotten worse since the film’s release. The constant grind of the western way of life is as such that children are simply not fully raised by their parents. A feeling acutely observed in the third season of afro surrealist sitcom Atlanta. Although both Mammoth and the Atlanta episode ‘Trini to da Bone’ touch on the similar feelings of children being raised outside the family unit, there are fewer laughs to be had in Moodysson’s feature.
While the film doesn’t have the enormity of scope that could be found in, say, an Iñárritu interlocking story (the Gael García Bernal connection seems somewhat deliberate), Mammoth holds the same value of connection that lies in most of Moodysson’s films. For instance, the running trait that flows through the likes of Together and Lilya 4-Ever is that of parents who are too immature or strained by life’s pressures to deal with the children they bore. The jobs each person holds is so all encompassing that the family unit is fundamentally fractured in ways that many may not have comprehended. Oddly enough there was a critical argument concluding that Mammoth held streaks of misogyny. Far from it. The simple metaphorical visuals alone highlight that the real conflict lies in the trappings of modern life rather than gender.
The suffocating tone from the last few films is alleviated with 2013’s We Are the Best! A boisterous return to the type of fizzy coming-of-age narrative which made Show Me Love so appealing to watch. Set in the early 80s when punk is considered dead, three very unlikely school friends decide to band together and start a punk band. We Are the Best! is not at all interested in any sort of intricate plotting. However, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise by now. We Are the Best! has many of the traits of a typical teenage film, but Moodysson is far more focused on the emotional bond that grows from the unlikely trio. The setting may be different, but We Are the Best! again deals with youthful outsiders who are just not the pieces of the conformist puzzle that people would like. For all the arguments of Mammoth being misogynistic, it’s hard to say the same here. This film loves its riot girls. With their style coding not only punk but also queer sub-culture, watching these three teens cackle after finding out how to play different chords is wonderfully endearing. Mostly because they’re also discovering who they may be as people when they grow up.
As with most Arrow Video Blu-ray transfers, the visual quality here is solid. Even the Mini DV playback of A Hole in My Heart is substantial. However, the look of that film could be vastly different on a larger screen. A career retrospective with Moodysson is broken into segments for each movie. Moodysson shows himself to be an affable and entertaining conversationalist when talking about his movies. Even on the likes of A Hole in my Heart and Container, which both obtained less than stellar reviews, Moodysson is unafraid to show understanding towards people who might not grasp his approach, while providing thoughtful insight into his process of making the film. There is a multitude of different extras on each disc, from extra footage excised from Container to Q&As on respective films with Moodyson which differ from the recent retrospective. All the discs feature obligatory trailers and image galleries. However, there’s a solid wealth of further interest for those who dig.
Overall, this is a strong film collection for cinephiles with a love for European cinema. Even with the likes of We Are the Best! now being ten years old, none of the films in the collection feels outdated or stale. The real sadness lies in the fact that Moodysson himself states in his retrospective that funding has become hard for him. A shame for a filmmaker whose strongest films not only have a clear focus on youth but also hold a freshness in the cultural topics they bring up. That said, even if Moodysson doesn’t make another feature film, his expressive movies have done enough to keep people talking about them for the years ahead.
The Lukas Moodysson Collection is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.