Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Nordic/Scandic Cinema
One of the best things about the Dominion of Canada is that for much of the year, about 80% of its land mass inspires such delightful Weather Channel warnings as: ‘Exposed skin will freeze in under 30 seconds’. I am certainly acquainted with the effects of the weather in the colonies, but save for very few examples, the cinema seldom captures the effects, or rather, the results of said meteorological joys. These delights include the important cultural implementation of physical/ psychological abuse, alcoholism, gambling addiction, criminal activity, suicidal tendencies, devil-may-care iconoclasm, mordantly perverse humour and my personal favourite, deep numbing depression. Luckily, the magisterial Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was, this year, engorged with such cinema – all hailing from the Nordic regions and Scandic cultures of Europe, mostly programmed by the very fine curator and critic Steve Gravestock, who is not only an international programmer specialising in said Nordic fare, but holds the related position of being topper of all things cinematically Canuckian at TIFF. Here in this report, you’ll find a nice sampling of my thoughts on a variety of Nordic bonbons I saw at TIFF – some with a fine sense of humour and many so painful that they remind one of the famed chockie treat ‘Spring Surprise’ – those milk chocolate orbs that melt in your mouth and jettison steel bolts out through your cheeks. Some believe this grotesquely painful sweet comestible is a satirical invention of the Monty Python lads, but one must never forget that those Oxbridge Boys toured our fair Dominion in their early years and became acquainted with Canada’s own big joke, our very own ‘Spring Surprise’, which, of course, is no spring at all.
Concrete Night (Pirjo Honkasalo, 2013) ****
The sins of our fathers and mothers, and their fathers and mothers before them, have a way of swimming about the viscous fluids of creation as aberrant DNA, and if the sins of society offer no escape, the cycles of aimlessness, desperation, pain, poverty and violence keep repeating themselves ad infinitum.
Such is life in Helsinki.
Such is the portrait of despair painted with murkily exquisite monochrome by master Finnish filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo, who last delivered The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, a devastatingly moving 2004 documentary portrait of the effects of the Chechen War upon the children of both Chechnya and Russia. In that documentary, she brought an extremely formal beauty to the proceedings, but with her first drama in years, Concrete Night seems to allow for even greater stylized approaches to the material. Never, in recent memory (save perhaps for Ulrich Seidl), has ugliness and despair seemed so beautiful.
Concrete Night is based upon the 1981 novel of the same name by Pirkko Saisio. Honkasalo wrote the screenplay adaptation to update the period to the present, though to be blunt, the movie feels like it’s set in some kind of timeless never-never land. Shot in a striking monochrome by cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg, the movie pulses with squalid expressionism and a kind of street poetry that feels like a cross between Charles Bukowski and a skewed Byronic romanticism. This is, of course, exemplified by the film’s main character, Simo (Johannes Brotherus), a young man who lives in a horrendously cramped apartment with his alcoholic single mother (Anneli Karppinen) and his older brother Ikko (Jari Virman). Simo is plagued by nightmares of suffocation and drowning, while Ikko and his mother seek the solace of booze. In Finland, it would seem that despair is a family affair – as it should be!
Much of the film takes place while the brothers journey into the heart of a dark Helsinki night. The portent becomes almost unbearable and it’s only a matter of time before we’re plunged into an explosion of numbing, excruciatingly vicious violence. Most extraordinary of all is how Honkasalo drags us over the hot coals in such a cerebral manner and yet, for every clear touch of her directorial hand, we never feel like we’re watching anything less than something raw and real.
We watch in utter dread, hoping that Simo makes the right choice. Life, of course, is never that simple. Then again, neither are great films. Sometimes, for viewers to hold on to what is dear, we need to stumble out of the cinema infused with the horror, the unalterable truth, that cycles of violence, poverty and abuse are seldom broken – that to break free requires more than personal choice, it also demands societal intervention.
And that is often easier said than done.
Watch the trailer for Concrete Night:
We Are the Best (Lukas Moodysson, 2013) ****
Three very special little girls on the cusp of puberty are horrifically surrounded by conformist girlie-girls and immature boys toying with societal expectations of machismo. Two of the young ladies are self-described punk rockers, while a third comes from a goody-two-shoes ultra-Christian background (but with punk desires roiling beneath her veneer). Joyfully and with great satisfaction, the trio find each other in an otherwise antiseptic Sweden, where most of their peers, teachers and family are still clinging to outmoded values, yet pathetically attempting to inject cliched tropes of modernism into their otherwise prissy, protected worlds.
Our pre-teen rebels form a punk band, resulting in a happy hell breaking loose, which, however, is threatened by a combination of their newfound overt expressions of non-conformity and all the normal conflicts of puberty. These conflicts have a potentially disastrous effect upon their quest to prove, to themselves and the world, that, as the film’s title declares: We Are the Best!
I’ve read a lot of nonsense lately that this film is a ‘return to form’.
‘Hogwash!’ I say. ‘Harumph!’
As if one of the great contemporary filmmakers of our time needs to find his way back to his earlier roots when he has, in fact, never abandoned them. Moodysson is one of contemporary cinema’s great humanist filmmakers, and all of his films have generated – at least for me – levels of emotion that are rooted ever-so deeply in the richness and breadth of humanity. We Are the Best! is, however, Moodysson’s most joyous film, and furthermore is an absolutely lovely celebration of a time long past and the virtues of non-conformity, which – for better or worse – created a generation of really cool people.
The screenplay, co-written by Moodysson and his wife Coco Moodysson, is based on the latter’s graphic novel Never Goodnight and though I have yet to read it myself, the movie wisely feels like a top-drawer graphic novel on film, with great characters, wry observations, keen wit, a perfect balance between visual and literary story beats, and several entertaining layers of ‘Fuck You!’.
On one hand, I feel like I might be reading far too much into the movie, that my take on it is based too closely upon my own experiences during the cultural cusp years of 1978-1982. You see, as fun and celebratory as the picture indeed is, I couldn’t help but feel while watching it – not just once, but twice on a big screen – a very gentle hint of melancholy running through the piece.
Ultimately, I do feel this melancholia is intentional, since every aspect of the film’s setting is pulsating with the horrendous sort of conformity that needed to be challenged. Set in 1982, a period which for me felt very much like the beginning of the end, and not just at the time, but certainly in retrospect (which must certainly be a place the Moodyssons’ are coming from themselves). One felt like the world was entering an intense phase of conservatism to rival the 50s, but without the cool repressive iconography of that decade. The 80s were all about stripping everything down, yet in a kind of tastelessly garish fashion. Film critic Pauline Kael titled her collection of reviews from this period ‘State of the Art’ – a horrendous phrase that came to describe everything that was so appalling about the 80s.
In spite of it all, there was, during this period, a blip of hope. While it lasted, it was beautiful. Moodysson’s protagonists, like so many of us during that period, needed to affirm our non-conformity by declaring that we were, indeed, the best. What’s special about the film is that every generation of non-conformists discovers this, and Moodysson has very delightfully and, I’d argue, importantly delivered a tale of considerable universality.
Watch the trailer for We Are the Best:
Sex, Drugs & Taxation (Christoffer Boe, 2013) *****
‘Fear and Loathing in Denmark’ is certainly one way to pitch Christoffer Boe’s perverse, manic, absurdly hilarious and sometimes dangerous (but absolutely gratifying) belly flop into this fact-based tale charting a 20-year-long unlikely friendship that began during Copenhagen’s swinging 60s. Generating its own parallel universe to the drug-and-booze-fuelled delirium in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 semi-autobiographical novel, director Boe tosses us aboard his very own hallucinogenic rollercoaster ride, which comprises the properties of both the English title of his film, Sex, Drugs & Taxation, and the very appropriate Danish title Spies & Glistrup.
Thompson’s addled satirical literary meanderings were pointedly subtitled ‘A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream’ – meanderings rendered even more satirically addled (delightfully so) by Gilliam. First serialised in Rolling Stone magazine, then published a year later in standalone hard copy form, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas celebrated a debauchery that, during the 70s, could be the only possible way to view an America that was well on the trajectory of a slow crash and burn. Boe, however, aims his satirical eye at a very specific dream, which initially was not part of any sort of collective nationalistic hope or wish, but instead belonged to two men. Their grand, mad dream eventually became a national dream, and, like Thompson’s American Dream, took its own fork in the road – choosing instead an eventual boulevard of broken dreams.
Just as Thompson’s novel and Gilliam’s film were rooted in mediated reality, so too is Boe’s film – maybe even more so. Ripped from Danish headlines, Sex, Drugs & Taxation turns out to be a worthy fantasia of the strangest corporate dynasty in Denmark’s history. In fact, the dreams of two men were really only one man’s dream – its mastermind. The other, in retrospect and within the context of Roe’s film, is a dim-bulb-ish recipient of perks born from the practical realization of the dream, his hedonistic enlightenment, so to speak (and not as big an oxymoron as one might think).
The aforementioned dreamer is corporate tax lawyer Mogens Glistrup (Nicolas Bro), a paunchy, balding, bucktoothed family man with a cockeyed visage who lives vicariously through the antics of his boozing, whore-mongering chief client, best friend and crazed, vacation travel magnate Simon Spies (Pilou Asbaek). Glistrup took a back-room position while Spies was the public face to all of Glistrup’s legal chicanery.
Glistrup’s surface goal was to make his best friend Spies filthy rich, but in so doing, his real desire was to crack the strangely intricate tax laws of Denmark and find a legal way to keep Spies on a zero tax base, which he hoped would extend to all of Denmark. Glistrup, you see, was a genius, and most probably insane. He believed that paying taxes was not only wrong, but that it was immoral for a country to collect taxes. To be sure, Boe’s film is a complete miasma of back-room business world and government bureaucracy back-stabbing, and the details of this world of high finance, law and government are never simplified, but laid out in all their complexity. None of this, though, is ever dull, since every single story involving corporate shenanigans and the malleability of jurisprudence is indelibly tied to some of the most outlandishly grotesque and hilarious indulgences in sex and drugs.
There are moments in the film so gloriously absurd, so sex-drenched, booze flooded and drug charged that one can do little more than soar along with a movie that dazzles us with stylistic flourishes, compelling storytelling and characters as engaging ads they are reprehensible. Sex, Drugs & Taxation feels like a film that’s not only set in another age, but one that was made at a time when cinema knew no boundaries, and as such, proved both immortal and universal. It’s a great picture, and like all great pictures, it’s got shelf life branded onto it.
It’s a movie that’ll stay with you, grow with you and be around long after you’re gone from this Earth.
Watch the trailer for Sex, Drugs & Taxation: