Category: Swedish Cinema

LFF 2015 #1: Flocken (Flocking, Sweden 2015)

Jennifer Fatime Azemi) as the young woman

Jennifer (Fatime Azemi) as the young woman

LFF‘Flocking’ here refers to the ‘flocking’ of sheep rather than anything to do with fibres or fabrics. The sheep in this case are the inhabitants of a small community in Swedish Lapland who are all quick to denounce a 14 year-old girl when she accuses a boy in her class of sexually assaulting her in the school toilets.

The film was introduced by Agneta Fagerström Olsson, one of its producers who re-appeared for a Q&A after the screening. She told us that this form of criminal sexual behaviour was an increasing problem in Swedish schools and that the film’s director was very committed in her approach to the material. Unfortunately Beata Gårdeler was prepping her next film in Vietnam and Agneta did not want to answer questions about her director’s distinctive visual style. My problem with this was partly because it was my first visit to Hackney Picturehouse with its very large screen (in Cinema 1). The projected image for Flocken looked dark – as if the projector was underpowered. Presumably this effect and the frequent use of very shallow fields of focus was the deliberate decision of the director, designed to suggest the isolation felt by the young woman – or possibly the distorted views of the community. It isn’t a visual style that is easy to watch even if it makes sense as a device to disturb the viewer for good reasons.

The film narrative works well to develop the pressure on Jennifer and to keep the audience thinking about whether what she has reported really did happen. Jennifer’s behaviour is carefully represented. But as one questioner pointed out in the Q&A in some ways the narrative itself is quite familiar – a dreadful thought, but such cases are not uncommon and films have been made about them fairly regularly. The film is potentially different, however, in two ways. First it introduces a narrative twist involving anonymous social media attacks on Jennifer and second it takes place in an isolated community so the school itself is very small and the accusation is something everybody knows about.

Alexander (John Risto) as the boy accused

Alexander (John Risto) as the boy accused

The interesting question is why does this community collectively behave in such a brutal way? I fear that this seems like another story about the brutality of Northern Sweden – where too much alcohol is consumed and too many guns are used for hunting. I have seen several such films and read several such crime novels. I also worry that Jennifer is a target because she is ‘different’ – dark compared to her blonde sister and single mother. The young actor who plays Jennifer has a name that suggests a migrant from South East Europe. Although it isn’t overt, are we meant to read a racism discourse here? Perhaps the two girls have different fathers? Is this an attack upon the single parent/mixed family? For a UK audience it is revealing to see the local priest who effectively refuses sanctuary (through weakness) and the local judicial system which works properly but doesn’t satisfy most of the townspeople. In the Q&A there was a suggestion that it was mainly a social class issue that meant that Jennifer’s family was ostracised so quickly, but I’m not sure about this.

Flocking is well made with good performances and its mainly female creative team explore how rape charges are handled in a thorough and sober way. Whether that is enough to get the film a wider distribution outside the festival circuit is open to question. The most recent film with similar plot elements is Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Denmark/Sweden 2012) but with its star cast, tight script and use of melodrama that is a hard act to follow. For me the visual style of Flocking was too much and it might have worked better for concentrated short bursts rather than seemingly throughout. Perhaps it would work better on a smaller screen?

Play (Sweden-France 2011)

'What's he going to do to me?'

‘What’s he going to do to me?’

I haven’t seen writer-director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (Sweden-France-Norway-Denmark 2014), one of the most feted arthouse films of this year,  but my anticipation has increased after watching (experiencing?) the film which preceded it, his second feature. There are at least two levels of ‘play’ going on in the film: there’s the ‘play’ of the boys (though it’s actually bullying rather than the ‘innocent’ kind); and the play with the spectator’s head, which makes for an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable, experience.

Based on actual court cases in Gothenburg, Sweden, the film follows a group of black lads as they part con/part bully two white, and one lad of East Asian extraction, out of their stuff. The racial politics could, in the eyes of the ‘wrong’ (racist) audience, be quite incendiary as the film represents the black lads in a (negative) stereotypical way. As an arthouse film (in both Sweden and elsewhere given the film’s visual style – more below), however, we might expect it to be seen by the ‘right’ (middle class) audience who may be appalled by the racist stereotyping presented.

However, it all happened so it’s not racist is it? These questions might give you some idea of the way Östlund teases (plays) his audience. It’s a bit like near the start of Crash (US, 2004), where two African-Americans talk about negative stereotyping before robbing two middle class white people on the street. It’s shocking to see obvious racist stereotypes in modern cinema (there are plenty of non-obvious ones). Östlund, who co-wrote and directed, doesn’t offer the emotional catharsis of entertainment, which we get in Crash, but the unnerving camera eye, most commonly utilised by Michael Haneke, with which to observe events. The film virtually forces us to ask the question whether we are watching a racist film or not; it is a good question.

The camera is mostly still, with some pans, and uses long takes and long lenses to observe the action from a distance, which often appears to be taking place on location with passers-by oblivious to the filming. This ‘dispassionate’ distance puts us in the position of an onlooker who can only observe and not intervene. Very little intervention from passers-by actually goes on. In one scene, where the black gang beat up one of their own members, a man who saw what was going on tells the victim he’ll be a witness in court for him. While this scene is obviously completely staged (please let it be!), it’s still shocking to think people won’t get involved; though the passivity of people, when confronted with problems on the street, is well documented.

Östlund does not simply ‘have it in’ for the gang, as a coda the dads of the white lads take out their revenge in a quite outrageous way; presumably this too happened. Two women do intervene at this but didn’t call the police!!! Sorry for the exclamation marks but that’s how the film works: ‘call the police!’ was bellowing in my head.

Assuming it all happened, an absolutely key issue for if it hadn’t then the film would be read differently, Play brilliantly questions our morality. The Telegraph reviewer, who gave the film 5*s, felt the film was ‘partly about a kind of paralysis wreaked by political correctness’. That’s to be expected from a right wing newspaper that doesn’t understand that ‘political correctness’ is a term of abuse aimed at attempts to avoid discrimination. For me the film’s about voyeurism and interrogates our values; or rather encourages us to interrogate our values. And I don’t think the film is about race, rather it is suggesting that class is the key social factor. The gang have little, compared to their middle class victims, who we first see shopping in an anonymous mall; one of whom has just lost 500 kroner to no great distress. Their parents, barely seen, seem more interested in work and only belatedly respond to a distress call. In a materialist society, materialism is the source of conflict. Östlund doesn’t take sides he just shows us uncomfortable truths.

A mostly non-professional cast are brilliantly marshalled though I am still puzzled by the scenes on a train with a cradle which seems to show up near the end, but the point is lost on me. Enlightenment welcome in the comments below please.

Glasgow FF15 #12: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron, Swe/Nor/Fra/Ger 2014)

In the opening sequence a visitor is mesmerised by this rather tatty stuffed pigeon in a glass case in the museum. Note his partner looking on in the background.

In the opening sequence a visitor is mesmerised by this rather tatty stuffed pigeon in a glass case in the museum. Note his partner looking on in the background.

This was one of the first films on my booking list. Roy Andersson won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2014 for this, only his fifth feature in a career that began in 1970. I enjoyed his previous film You, the Living (2007) very much and hoped for something similar but also different. ‘Pigeon’ is referred to as the third in a loose trilogy so it is indeed similar and at first I was a little disappointed because the overall idea  and the approach – several short comic scenes knitted together by a handful of characters – are identical to the earlier film (and I suspect to the first in the series, Songs From the Second Floor (2000) which I haven’t seen).

Bruegel's painting

Bruegel’s painting

It wasn’t until a few days later when I studied Andersson’s excellent website for the film, watched the trailer and flicked through the stills that I began to remember more of the sketches and to understand more of what he was getting at. The strange title refers to the painting by Pieter Bruegel, ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565), and the three birds sat on branches in the tree in the foreground. This famous painting has been referenced by other filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky. Andersson suggests that the birds take a panoramic view of human activities and the human condition – and that they are astonished that humans cannot see the coming apocalypse. Andersson shares their view and intends that we should be aware that we could change our behaviour and avert the tragedy for ourselves and the planet.

In order to present the pigeon’s view, Andersson selects a distinct aesthetic, moving away from realism and naturalism and drawing on ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ – the ‘New Objectivity’ art movement of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. He’s referring to both fine art and photography and in his notes he refers to a particular photograph by August Sander, entitled ‘The Pastry Chef’ (1928) in which the subject looks “trapped, aggressive and dangerous”. So, in his vignettes looking at the lives of ‘ordinary people’ in Sweden, Andersson sets out to tell little stories, some tragic, some sad, some pathetic. His chosen approach involves using painted sets with reduced colour palettes and using his company of ‘ordinary-looking’ actors with pale make-up. His camera usually remains static and keeps its distance from the actors so the vignettes play out in tableaux – often with a great deal going on in the background.

A rider comes to announce that the King wishes to use the toilet in the bar – of corse it is occupied!

A rider comes to announce that the King wishes to use the toilet in the bar – of course it is occupied!

Some of the vignettes are historical such as the one represented in the image above which refers to (I think) the young king Charles II in the Great Northern War of the early 18th century in which the Swedish Empire took on the Russians – please correct me if I’ve got this wrong. The bar is a popular location for Andersson since people go there to drown their sorrows and to seek solace with strangers.

Anderson on set for a scene outside a bicycle shop.

Anderson on set for a scene outside a bicycle shop – note the carefully painted walls.

'Sancho Panza and Don Quixote' – the hapless travelling salesmen with their vampire fangs and laughing bags.

‘Sancho Panza and Don Quixote’ – the hapless travelling salesmen with their vampire fangs and laughing bags.

The main linking device between the vignettes id the sad progress of the two travelling salesmen. If you look carefully you’ll see them in the image of the bar above – one of them is wearing the ‘Uncle One-Tooth Mask’, one of their ‘bestsellers’.

I remember some very darkly comic moments in Andersson’s previous film. One included a man eating from a large box of popcorn as he watched an execution in a prison. This new film has two very disturbing scenes featuring animal cruelty and the hideousness of (British) colonial barbarism. I confess to being puzzled as to exactly what Andersson intended these to say – but perhaps I’m expecting too much in terms of clarity.

Overall this is a wonderful film because of its use of film language as well as offering both comic relief and piercing commentary. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the music. I loved ‘Limping Lotte’s Bar’ in 1943.

The trailer from the Roy Andersson website:

Persona (Sweden 1966)

Elisabet and Alma

This was the key film in the Leeds International Film Festival’s short retrospective of films directed by Ingmar Bergman and set on his adopted home Island of Fårö. This seems to me not only the finest film ever made by Bergman but also one of the outstanding masterworks in World Cinema. It parallels other films that address their own medium of cinema, like Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (Otto e Mezzo, 1963) and Chris Marker’s La Jetée, [a proposed title early in the project was Cinematography]. This is an intense character study involving two very fine actresses, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson.

The film opens with an avant-garde montage of film – including the cinematic apparatus and apparently disconnected images: at least some of which do relate to the narrative that follows and some to other films by Bergman. Film as the subject re-appears near the middle of this work and again at the end with another montage which returns us to the cinematic apparatus on which the film relies. In between the narrative is presented in a more conventional style, which at the same time employs rigorous mise en scène, cinematography, sound design and editing. The film is graced by outstanding craft inputs from Bergman’s regular collaborators, Sven Nykvist, Ulla Ryghe, and P.O. Pettersson: and with more extracts from Bach on the soundtrack, [his Violin Concerto in E major]. There is also judicious accompanying music from Lars Johan Werle. And there is [once again] the influence of Strindberg.

The film offers a tight focus on two women characters, Elisabet Vogler (Ullman) and Nurse Alma (Andersson). We also meet a doctor who specialises in mental or psychological illnesses and the Elisabet’s husband .And we hear in the dialogue references to several characters including Alma’s fiancée. Bibi Andersson dominates the narrative because we learn most about the characters through her dialogue. For much of the film Ullman’s character is silent. There is a marvellous moment when we [think that we] hear her speak: reminiscent of the imperceptible movement after continuous stasis in La Jetée.

Whilst there is a tight focus on the two women, the Island of Fårö is important and it is recognisable from earlier films. There is a splendid long tracking shot as the two women walk along the beach. Much of the film occurs in the interiors, [mostly shot in a Stockholm Studio]. Later in the film there is a wonderful sequence running about eight minutes in length which consists of a long take that opens with a dolly, followed by a brief transition shot and then another long take in reverse shot, three increasingly large close-ups and then carefully crafted composite shots. What makes this sequence even more daring is the dialogue. The writing and delivery are impressive. There is an earlier monologue which relies almost completely on voice and tone – and it is far more erotic than many a visual sequence. Whilst near the middle of the film there is a brief male voice over

This is certainly a challenging film: a friend at the screening reckoned that one needed to see the film two or three times to fully comprehend it. It is also a richly complex film that pays the repeated viewings. This was my fifth or sixth screening of the film and I was still noticing aspects or noting possible meanings and references. We were fortunate to see the film in a good 35mm print: the cinematography benefits from the characteristic of the traditional medium. The Festival provides slips so audience members can vote on a scale of 1 to 5 – I ticked 5 on two slips and handed them in together.