30 June 2003 | enicholson
Possibly my new favorite film...
I recently saw this film on an import DVD (it hasn't been released on DVD here in the states yet) after missing its small theatrical run here a couple of years ago. I think perhaps Ingmar Bergman is right about Moodyson. He is a young master. Though I have yet see Moodyson's other films, I was overwhelmed by the power of this film.
The film is about a group of counterculture types who live in a collective household called "Together" in 1975 Stockholm, Sweden. But they often struggle to get along because they have trouble finding and living with shared values and in some cases just don't like each other. Goran, the de facto head of the household, wants to please everyone. He wishes everyone would just get along. Any obstacle to group harmony is any obstacle to him as well. Elisabeth, the working class sister of Goran, one day is forced to move in to the household with her two children, Eva and Stefan, due to the breakdown of her marriage. Meanwhile, Rolf, her hard-drinking, abusive husband, struggles to overcome his devastation and loneliness over their leaving. Moreover, a boy who lives in a "proper" middle-class home next door to "Together" becomes attracted to Eva. This is the setup of a simple story with complex interactions. The story unfolds simply too, but in ways you don't expect because it is so unforced and natural. Like most great works of art, literature or filmmaking, it progresses and unfolds with a feeling of simplicity -- organic and lifelike.
Don't be fooled by the specifics on the surface. On the surface this film seems to be little more than a survey of the amusing antics of hippies from the 1970s. But this film is so much more than that for many reasons.
First of all, this film is a commentary on the adults of today as much as it is of the adults 1975. The reason I say this is because the emotional center of the story is with the two children of Elisabeth and Rolf: Eva and Stefan. By allowing us, the audience, to see most of the action through the eyes of two impressionable children suffering through the break-up of their parents' marriage in 1975, and struggling to adjust to their new environment of a collective, it soon becomes clear that this film is about us -- the children of the 1970s -- who are now in their late 20s up through the early 40s. The film is a look back through the eyes of a then child, now adult director of a time where nearly every value held by middle-class, western society and culture was challenged if not, in some settings, entirely uprooted. We are the children who grew up in this age of fantastic turmoil and upheaval -- which in Europe by the mid 1970s was probably even more tumultuous and radicalized than in the U.S. But of course it is also about the older generations who were young adults when all of this was happening.
Perhaps most importantly, however, it is for the younger generations who weren't even born at that time. I say this because the direction the world seems to be headed for today seems to demand a response of a sense of some type community that began to disappear in the late 70s and 1980s. Many kids and young people only know about a couple kinds of communities and families: gangs and step-families. A film like this provides a very modest hope, but at least some kind of hope.
The main characters who are children, Evan and Stefan, are looking for love, security and comfort at home, as all children do, but really can't find any of it save love, because the security and comfort of bourgeois, middle-class life was under this continual assault during the time period in which the film is set -- and continues to be assaulted to this day (though today often for different reasons). But meanwhile, next door, another child (I can't remember the character's name) must undergo a struggle of a different kind. He must endure the hypocrisy of his parents' loveless marriage, which carries on possibly out of habit, or possibly for the sake of appearances, or possibly a fear of loneliness -- or possibly all of these. The boy next door is aware and intrigued by the energy and liveliness of his strange next door, hippie neighbors, but he is mainly drawn to Eva, who is as much a misfit in her environment as he is alienated in his.
If Eva's struggle is to find a new identity away from the failure of her parents' marriage, her brother Stefan's is to find a new way to reconnect to his mother and his father -- especially his mother, Elisabeth. She is now free to live again away from her hard drinking, abusive husband; but this new experimentation with a new life is, at least initially, a threat to Stefan, who early on fears that his mother may be on the verge of abandoning him, and his sister whom he is not very close with, for this new lifestyle. Moodyson has a remarkable talent of rendering characters who on are the verge of losing everything -- who are suffering devastating ruptures in their lives but somehow find the strength to adjust, adapt and move on. The emotional core of these themes of great change, struggle and moving on are with the children in this film. But all of the adults struggle with major changes too. Moodyson focuses the camera most on the most heart-wrenched of the group of adults: Elisabeth and Rolf, and also Elisabeth's brother Goran, whose girlfriend is recklessly and desperately promiscuous. Thus the emotional core of the film is basic to human emotional desires and needs: the desire and need for love, and the fallout of loneliness, anguish and craziness when love goes awry and loved ones becomes irresponsible, reckless, or even dangerous.
But from the perspective of the collective, this film takes on another ambitious theme: the interests of the individual(s) versus the interests of the group. We see this almost immediately in the film when we are introduced to the characters who inhabit "Together," and this is where much of the comedy in the film comes from. Early on all of the housemates squabble not only about whose turn it is to do the dishes, but also whether doing dishes is even too "bourgeois" to bother with. Also, the tension of integrating Elisabeth and her children in to the group -- a tension which arises simply out of a reluctance to give up any more space to any newcomers -- is important to the underlying themes in the film. Elisabeth and her children badly need comfort and acceptance, but the children resist this new space of hippie "sharing" -- as though they believe it's a fraud in its weirdness for the sake of weirdness. And another area this film explores well within the theme of the individual vs. the group is that of sexual experimentation and promiscuity. Vital to preserving the group is tolerance of homosexuality and sexual openness, yet sexuality in a group setting can be as diverse as each individual that inhabits the group. And those who are most sexually predatory can leave lasting scars and bitter resentments. Homosexuality for some of the members in the group has lost its instinctual drive, and instead, as Lasse irreverently jests about toward his ex-wife, becomes just another form of political expression -- but also ultimately sex serves up a form of individual expression too. Sex gives the individual a greater sense of identity to the degree that that individual's sex life is so different from everyone else's -- whether it's a certain kind of homosexuality, a large number of sex partners, an odd choice of sex partners, etc. In other words, sexuality can define the group, but it often can threaten it too in that it too greatly exalts the conquests and exploitations of the individual.
But then again so can many other values can define or threaten a group -- many of which are shared and others which are not -- such as vegetarianism, television, consumerism, Marxism, etc. Tension is there throughout over various "doings" (or lack thereof) within the household, and these different areas are discussed and battled over through the characters to explore how the group succeeds or fails to define itself according to any given value. Erik leaves because he can not stand the group's softness when it comes to concern for the proletariat against the bourgeoisie enemy. Lasse makes fun of Erik to no end over what he sees as Erik's fundamental hypocrisy. Two other housemates finally leave when the children are allowed to bring hot dogs in to the house. Fundamentalism, the film suggests, destroys diversity, and therefore is a threat to preserving a successful group dynamic, even though fundamentalism may have the best interests of all at heart.
Tolerance, with some debate and disagreement, is the key to long term togetherness and diversity. Togetherness and diversity is a key component to happiness and a functioning group, the film strongly and convincingly suggests -- especially through its wonderfully simple games in the November snow.
This film also spoke to me in how it seemed to also evoke the countercultural revival of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Something about these hippies seemed neo rather than old school, but that's understandable in that total period authenticity just isn't possible. Political correctness vs. creative and individualistic irony and drive also felt like a major theme at work here -- even though no one in the film ever utters the term "politically correct" as it was not a term that was coined in the 70s. As a theme, as much as a term, such tensions are of the 1980s and 1990s as much as the 1970s -- if not a little bit more. Maybe this is more in my head than it is in the film, but I have to think that the countercultural aspects and themes in this film connect to a 21st century audience so strongly still not just because so many of us lived through the time period in which this film was set, but also because we continued to live out these kinds of issues up until the present day -- especially many of us who were kids in the 70s.
Interestingly, one thing the film really stays away from was central to the 60s and 70s counterculture: drug use and experimentation -- as though exploring this theme might infringe upon or distort the theme of drug and alcohol abuse -- which one of the characters, Rolf, battles in the film. But nearly everyone else in the film drinks too, so I'm not so sure. If drug experimentation at "Together" had been more explored in this film, it could have provided some more lively and funny scenes, but perhaps Moodyson didn't see the need either in terms of character or of theme. Instead, everyone pretty much drinks alcohol. Maybe drugs weren't as big in 1975 Sweden as they were in 1975 America. They were -- and for much of the population still are -- a religion in America.
If this film had been only about Elisabeth's dilemma with her children and her husband, or only about the collective itself, it would not have been nearly so strong. But Moodyson joins the two main stories and sets of characters masterfully to illustrate his themes. Moodyson introduces us to dysfunction in the family realm with Elisabeth and Rolf, and then moves us over to difficulties in the community realm with the collective "Together." By joining the two groups -- the family and the community -- in his narrative with such skill, wit and simplicity, Moodyson shows how the two need one another, can threaten and damage one another, but can also fill in for one where the other could be failing. In this film, it seems to be the community rescuing souls from the dysfunction of family more so than vice versa. Families break down, but the community can help restore some sense of order -- and can occasionally help restore families. Togetherness in the community arises where a lack of togetherness in the family is most needed, yet togetherness in the community requires a sense of shared responsibility and industry to go along with the friendship and nurturing.
The film suggests that not all forms of togetherness are ideal, but togetherness in general is essential -- and that debate and discord are an important part of maintaining and discovering what makes the group work. The film also strongly suggests that intolerance and recklessness, in the long run, leads to loneliness, anguish and despair. It's been so long since I have seen a film I could relate to with such ease. My sincere thanks to Moodyson for such a heartfelt, hilarious, painful, genuine film.