three teen films in post-Bergman Sweden

People usually equal Ingmar Bergman to Swedish films.

To look more scientifically, according to Andrew Higson’s illustration of nation cinema: “to look inward, reflecting on the nation itself, on its past, present and future, its cultural heritage, its indigenous traditions, its sense of common identity and continuity… [and] to look out across its borders, asserting its difference from other national cinemas, proclaiming its sense of otherness”, the above equation is partially true, since Bergman created distinctive cinematic representations of Swedish people, landscape, its memories and demons, its angst and laughter. There is no denying that as an iconic film-maker, “Ingmar Bergman is just as much a symbol of Sweden as Volvo, IKEA, Björn Borg or ABBA.” However, Bergman’s works do have a suspected touch of the bourgeois, and his differentiate personal style might just be his limitation in themes.

That is why I am going to analyze three films and their story-telling in the post-Bergman era addressing teenager issues in contemporary Sweden: Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998), Sebbe (Babak Najafi, 2010) and Simple Simon (Andreas Öhman, 2010). Aided with a great combination of poetic cinematography with a down-to-earth depiction of the current Swedish society, these films are not as introspective or heavy as the Bergman works, probably due to further boost of economic growth, a change toward more open societal surroundings, new possibilities emerged within the progressed modern context, and the innate vitality and explosiveness of the younger generation. Their values lie in the fluid story-telling, the unparalleled straightforwardness and the in-depth exploration and anatomy of a family, a community and a society as a whole

1.1  To establish identity

Teenagers are experiencing a transitional stage, yet to figure out their own identity, sexuality and direction. While Hollywood evades this ambiguity of self-recognition and presents the audience with a sequence of sex comedies: American Pie; Bollywood teenagers are busy dancing and singing to their loved ones; Swedish director Lukas Moodyssoncaptured the tripping, loneliness and struggle of teenager metamorphosis: Show Me Love is a candid and sincere coming-of-age story of teenager life in a provincial town Åmål.

Agnes and Elin are classmates with totally different situations: Agnes is hermitic, angry and depressed while Elin is a popular girl getting bored of the uneventful small town life. Living in a rather conservative town, Agnes bears a secret love towards Elin and dare not confess. Elin is urged by her sister Jessica to kiss Agnes at her 16th birthday party for a bet. Rather embarrassed by this humiliation, Agnes is about to commit suicide when Elin shows up and apologizes. They discover shared affection towards each other but Elin is afraid to admit so and tries a short relationship with Johan, who she avoided before. Elin finally can not resist Agnes’ attraction and walk out of the bathroom, hand in hand with Agnes, ignoring the classmates’ shouting, shock and staring.

No matter it’s about young Werther’s sorrows or mocked physical clumsiness, the central element of teenager issues is: “It’s not easy to be me.” Show Me Love is not a sensational piece with screaming anger but a refreshing episode with two girls faced with a choice they are ready to defend and happy to live with, regardless of the unintended consequences or others’ taunts and jibes: they are brave enough to face “who am I”. To show their courage, wit, and energy, the film doesn’t resort to long shots; instead, it uses “distinctive crash-zooms, close framing and blocking of characters within a frame, the use of existing light sources rather than three-point lighting.” Teenagers’ image and presence are emphasized by the flood of close-ups and a soundtrack full of popular songs – Here I am. This is me.

1.2  To establish independence

The film Sebbe by the Swedish director Babak Najafi shows the other side of the welfare state: the difficulties a poor family needs to struggle through in order to survive. The directors’ immigrant background probably facilitates him with an alternative and provocative version of the lower class’ living in Sweden.

The audience might be familiar with stories of kids grown up in a single parent family and teenagers go astray and take drugs or become alcoholic, but when it comes to a rather poor family in Sweden, it pops up as a surprising fact – hard to believe yet true enough to convince.

The Swedish society as a whole is abundant and secure, yet for a few families, life can be a struggle: Sebbe’s mother Eva is consumed by her anguish and desperation, living on wages from delivering newspapers; they have an apartment to live and some food on the table. However, they do not have enough money to lead a respectable life or keep up with the Joneses, which means the physically week Sebbe can not afford expensive clothes, can not hang out with the popular and powerful kids in school, what is worse, he is not allowed to accept the neighbour’s birthday party as her mom can’t return the favour.

He is constantly scorned, bullied and abashed in school but he never fights back until he is declared as the thief of a winter coat: truth is bitter to swallow as the coat, left by someone in the laundry room, is a birthday gift his mother gives him. His life was collapsed since the only column and support in his life turns out to be a liar and thief, though in the name of love. With the absence of a father and the incapability of a mother, he is forced to be more mature than his peers and he manages to do so: he makes use of electronic junks and literally builds a workshop of his own with creations like a ceiling light project, a fancy updated bike, etc. Though his mother constantly fails him, he never complains or challenges her. Like a frail little bird, he just needs a nest to perch and rest. At the time, mother is his last safe haven.

Life seems hopeless and he is indeed helpless when his mother throws his personal items off the building and exiles him. He builds dynamite with massive destruction with his ingenuity and goes to the classroom, wishing to die with those bullying and unsympathetic classmates. His renouncement of this action at the “crime scene” shows more of a will to live than fear and timidity. After the twists and turns, he chooses to hit the road, as a drifter, all alone and detached yet with the ability to create and build things.

With a dark greyish colour and a claustrophobic framing, the film exhibits agreeable melancholy: a teenager, emotionally exhausted by an angry mother, learns how to stand up for himself. The final shots of him on the bus throwing away pictures of his parents can be read as a sign of his dormant vexation, a goodbye to the bitter-sweet past days and a declaration of independence.

1.3  To establish trust

Swedish youths are reportedly quiet and introverted than the average; Andreas Öhman’s Simple Simon portrays an extreme case featuring a physics geek suffered from Asperger syndrome, yet it is by no means a deafening cry of a victim – it is a delicate romantic story with cosy details.

Simon leads a life filled with equation, balance and avoidance of physical touch and finds it impossible to live with his parents so he hides into his shell: an iron barrel, his imaginary spaceship, as he believes in the barrel he is in orbit around Earth, travelling in space, with no misunderstandings or chaos. Nothing and nobody can lure him outside the barrel, so he is taken to big brother Sam’s apartment and lives with Sam’s girlfriend Frida. He needs to conquer his syndrome and build trust with Frida, so he designs a plan with military punctuality, fixed diet and a definite weekly schedule: everything needs to run according to this plan and no change should occur. When Frida finally has enough of this, her break up with Sam causes no one would do the dishes and that means chaos for Simon, so he has a new mission to find Sam a new girlfriend to balance the equation of his life.

It may sound ridiculous yet nonetheless an elaborately-devised project with explicit yes/no questions and potential candidate’s pictures. First he is in search of some girl with the exact likes and dislikes shared by Sam, who later explains things in a special way that Simon can understand: only opposite poles of a magnet can attract each other. So Simon conversely tries to find Sam a spontaneous girl Jennifer and he even learns all the romantic elements from Hugh Grant’s rom-com: French cuisine, shining bulbs, red roses, live music and fireworks during an outdoor dinner – all to encourage Sam and Jennifer to fall in love.

Serendipity is a fun part of life as it turns out Jennifer prefers Simon: though the girlfriend-hunting dedicated to Sam “fails”, Simon obviously receives an unexpected fruit from this quest – Jennifer, a friend he can trust and a girl who likes him. More importantly, Simon learns to solve a problem with a “practical” system, instead of going back to his “spaceship” to avoid trouble: it is a life-changing achievement. No more evasion, no more dread of physical touch, less doubt toward human beings: it’s almost a beginning of a new life.

The young director Andreas Öhman seems to make a manifesto here: even the Asperger syndrome can be alleviated, what else emotional problems would be too insurmountable to face? Besides audio-visual enjoyment, he offers the audience a dose of hope, a tonic to the weary heart, a reason to move on, and yes, a chance to laugh with ease.

Reflections of the Swedish culture, these three films in post-Bergman era, dealing with “[a]ffection, relationship, memory, kinship, place, community, emotional fulfilment, intellectual enjoyment, a sense of ultimate meaning,” do not have glorious mountains, picturesque villages, long and philosophical dialogues, theatrical stage-like scenes, or infinite self-exploration. In a way, it’s more accessible to the contemporary audience and also quite different from the Swedish stereotyping personas: these are stories with warm and daring teenagers, not yielding to their current situations or obstacles, remain faith, true self and courage to establish the identity, independence and trust.

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