The wrong trousers

 

He says he’s not conscious of Bergman’s influence, but there is an undeniably gloomy thread running through director
Lukas Moodysson’s films, including the latest, Mammoth, which looks at global patterns of exploitation and modern family life. Is it hard to be a Swede, asks TARA BRADY

‘I DON’T feel that I do the things that are the most fun,” says Lukas Moodysson. Well, quite. It is a fact, much loved by pedants, that suicide rates in Sweden are not significantly higher than those noted around the rest of Europe. If the urban myth that suggests otherwise has survived, it most likely owes its longevity to Scandinavia’s most successful cultural exports, Ingmar Bergman and such noted spiritual heirs as Moodysson.

Contemporary Swedish artists may protest to the contrary, but astute observers can glimpse miserable Bergmanesque shadows flitting across the gloomy pages of mystery writers Henning Mankel and Stieg Larsson and around the stark hinterland of Let the Right One In. If these works have taught us anything, it’s that it’s not easy being Swede.

“Ha ha. That’s an interesting idea,” says Lukas Moodysson. “Maybe it has something to do with the weather. Maybe it is the light. Maybe it is to do with the high standard of living. We have more time to contemplate things. We stay indoors. We think a lot.”

Nobody knows more about Bergman’s legacy than Lukas Moodysson. The younger director has always insisted that he is “not conscious” of Bergman’s influence. Critics have always begged to differ. A reclusive artist who had published five volumes of poetry and a novel by the age of 23, Moodysson’s flair for existential angst was noted as “Bergmanesque” long before he ever picked up a camera.

The older director, in turn, was a fan, who described Moodysson’s 1998 directorial breakthrough, Show Me Love, as “a young master’s first masterpiece. We have perhaps unreasonable expectations . . . ” Moodysson’s second major feature, Together, played out the disintegration of a hippie commune to the strains of Abba and attracted an even louder chorus of Bergman comparisons.

The young film-maker responded with a shift in tone. Lilya-4-Ever– a sex-trafficking drama loosely based on the life of the 16-year-old Lithuanian Danguole Rasalaite (a case that inspired headlines and much soul searching in Sweden) – introduced heavier social themes into the Moodysson alchemy. Later experimental pieces, A Hole in My Heart and Container, ripped up the rule book completely.

“Yes, it probably was conscious to speak in a different way,” Moodysson tells me. “In one way it’s a bit double-edged. Speaking in a narrative still is in some ways more difficult. I find it easier to speak in a more chaotic way. I find that easier in a chaotic world sometimes. It can be a struggle to communicate through narrative.”

Critics, particularly those of the anglophone world, were appalled by the emergence of this new avant-garde Moodysson. Where had their young master gone? Even the director’s most ardent admirers found it difficult to reconcile A Hole in My Heart’s depictions of masturbation with a toothbrush and diseased organs with the right-on socialist, feminist, Christian father-of-three behind Together.

“I am really not very sure about those words,” he laughs. “Am I these things? Am I a socialist? Well, there are opinions that I have that are very much to the left. And there are some opinions I have that are very conservative. It’s not so easy to just call yourself a socialist. I do have strong feelings that there are things I have to do. I feel responsibility that comes from somewhere. I do the things that I am forced to do. But that’s not to say I do them for political reasons.”

He insists that there is no conflict between his Christian beliefs and the graphic, pornographic aspects of his later films.

“No. I think there is a time for everything,” he says. “There is a time for anger and there is a time for sadness. When I look at the world and at things around me I feel I have to correspond with honesty and that sometimes means anger, sometimes happiness.”

Seldom a predictable artist, Moodysson’s new film marks a return to the fine, sombre storytelling that characterised his earlier ones. To this end, young art-house hipsters Gael García Bernal and Michelle Williams play an affluent New York couple – she’s an emergency-room surgeon, he’s a hot-shot games designer – with a bright seven-year-old daughter. Both mom and dad are busy professionals, so the girl spends most of her time with Gloria (Marife Necesito), the family’s Filipino nanny, who, in turn, is saving to buy a house for her two young sons back home. Motherless Child and Ladytron’s Destroy Everything You Touch play loudly and ominously on the soundtrack.

“It’s more of a sad film than an angry film,” says Moodysson. “There aren’t enough answers for it to be a campaigning film. It’s interesting how it’s been received. The left maybe think it doesn’t have a clear enough standpoint. Some people have seen it as conservative rather than socialist. People say families should stay together. I am not sure it has a clear standpoint like that. For me it has more questions than answers.”

A quantum leap from the bombast of Crashand Babel, Mammothtraces out global patterns of exploitation in small, nuanced, dramatic movements. “I wanted to make something that was going in different directions at all times,” says the director. “It had to be alive and growing.”

The film’s focus on absent parents has, however, been read by some commentators as an attack on working families, a charge Moodysson flatly denies.

“There was an enormous attack on me. They were saying it’s the most misogynistic film – because the mothers all worked. They assumed I was trying to say that mothers should stay at home. That was never on my mind. It deals with men doing that to. It is difficult to combine your work and raise your children. I know this. It’s a film that I think talks to people who are in very different social situations but share frustrations about spending enough time with children.”

Does this new tone – or perhaps new old tone – indicate that Moodysson, now aged 41, has cast aside the enfant terrible tendencies of recent years? Perhaps. Reassuringly, he’s still uncompromising enough to describe Srdjan Spasojevic’s coruscating A Serbian Filmas the most interesting in recent months.

“I am not really sure if I think it is a great film,” he says. “But A Serbian Filmis one of those films that has an energy. It is the sort of thing inspires me to make films. It doesn’t really matter if such a film is good or bad. There are a lot of films that you like a lot when you see them and then you forget them. Then there are others that don’t register when you see them but come back to you. The films that stay with you are worth something.”

Despite his unapologetic aesthetic tastes, the director admits to a degree of mellowing and a new passion for contemplation that an impudent person might call, well, Bergmanesque.

“It’s getting more difficult to make films,” says the director. “In the past I just made something. Now I feel I have a bigger burden in myself. It doesn’t feel I am getting better at the craft. In some ways I feel I have a bigger ability to improvise when younger. It’s getting really difficult to direct. It’s getting hard to say something quickly when somebody on set asks ‘black trousers or blue trousers?’ This has something to do with age. It’s getting harder to react. You have to be in a room with the actors and you have to react to all these small decisions.

“I feel like I am getting smarter in my head as I get older. But I am also getting slower in my head. More and more I just want to go home and think about the blue trousers or the black trousers.”

Mammothis on limited release