Today, I'm reviewing a wonderful Swedish film called Tillsammans (2000), or Together for its English-language release (a straightforward translation of "Tillsammans"). Tomorrow, I'll be reviewing a Chinese film called Together that has entirely different subject matter. Why I decided to review Together together with Together I'm not altogether sure. In any case, these two reviews will not be duplicate postings, so stay alert! The present film is the fifth one by a talented young Swedish director by the name of Lukas Moddysson, but only the second to get international distribution.
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Historical Background: Lucas Moodysson's full birthname was Karl Frederik Lucas Moodysson. He was born on January 17th, 1969, in Malmö, Skåne län, Sweden, where he still lives, with his wife, Coco, sons Emil (b. 1996) and Julius (b. 1998), and daughter Lily (b. 2003). Emil has a brief cameo appearance in Tillsammans. When Moodysson was just seventeen years of age, he published a collection of his poems. He has written five such collections since. Moodysson made his first film in 1995, Det var en mörk och stormig natt. His third film, Bara prata lite, was the first to receive an English title; namely, Talk. Moodysson first came to widespread international attention with his acclaimed Fucking Åmål (1998), which, understandably, was quickly given a sanitized name, Show Me Love, for distribution in English-speaking countries. Set in the exceedingly boring Swedish town of Åmål, it is a coming-of-age comedy that became quite popular with teenagers. It relates to a pair of teenage girls, one, Agnes, with lesbian proclivities, and the other, Elin, who kisses Agnes on a dare and unexpectedly discovers that she enjoyed it. The film received a "Teddy" at the International Berlin Film Festival in 1999 for Best Gay/Lesbian Film.
Moodysson's breakout success with Show Me Love was followed by the present film, in 2000. It, too, won international acclaim. Moodysson has made three films since, but none with as much success as his two winners from 1998 and 2000. His three recent films are Lilya 4-ever (2002), Terrorists: The Kids They Sentenced (2003), and A Hole in My Heart (2004). Moodysson is the only director ever to win four Guldbaggar Awards (which are the Swedish equivalent of Oscars). The Gijón International Film Festival in Spain, in 2004, featured a retrospective on Moodysson work, which is a pretty nice honor for such a young director. Along with Stefan Jarl, Moodysson founded the organization Swedish Film Workers for Peace and Freedom in an Independent Palestine.
The Story: The time is November, 1975, and a radio news broadcast announces the death of Franco, the fascist dictator of Spain. It is cause for celebration among left-leaning and freedom-loving people everywhere. In a commune in Stockholm, Sweden, called "Tillsammans" ("Together," in English), the adults begin hugging one another and cheering and the children begin to clap exuberantly.
This commune, in a residential neighborhood, consists presently of eight young adults and two children, living together in a mid-sized single family home. It's a crowded arrangement and tensions are sometimes elevated. It's about to become more crowded because Göran (Gustav Hammarsten), the community's easy-going blond-haired and red-bearded conciliator, needs to provide refuge for his sister, Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren), and her two children, Eva (Emma Samuelsson), age thirteen, and Stefan (Sam Kessel), about age nine. Elisabeth is having a spat, or worse, with her abusive, alcoholic husband, Rolf, and is badly in need of a place to stay. Göran's generosity doesn't sit well with the other inhabitants of this already overcrowded household, but Göran reminds them of their commitment to "solidarity."
Göran's girlfriend, Lena (Anja Lundkvist), is a piece of work. She's lusty and totally self-absorbed. She and Göran have an "open" relationship, meaning that either one is free to sleep with whomever they wish. In practice, it is mainly Lena who takes advantage of the arrangement, getting it on noisily in the next bedroom with another resident of the household, the surly Erik (Olle Sarri), who would actually prefer to spout Marxist platitudes than fornicate. Despite limited interest in Lena, Erik is apparently something of a class-A stud, since Lena has her first ever orgasm with Erik. She has no compunction about later reporting her success to the crestfallen Göran, who she uses as a doormat. He half-heartedly indicates how happy he is for her.
Also in this commune is Anna (Jessica Liedberg), who has recently divorced Lasse (Ola Norell), but they continue to live in the commune for the sake of their eight-year-old son, Tet (Axel Zuber), named after the famous North Vietnamese offensive. Anna has decided that she is a lesbian "for political reasons." She's down on bourgeoisie male dominance and sleeping with men amounts to sleeping with the enemy. She's in the kitchen doing the dishes with just a shirt, nude from the waste down. As she explains it (in considerably more detail than her housemates wanted to know), she has a fungal infection and needs to air out. Lasse and Anna may be divorced, but they still manage to snarl at one another. By way of mocking his ex-wife, Lasse drops his pants and lets his apparatus hang out as well. As luck would have it, Elisabeth arrives, at that precise moment, with her two children. Eva and Stefan are certain that they've just walked into the loony bin (and they're not that far off)! Lasse at least has the presence of mind to pull his pants back up. Anna, by contrast, takes an immediate shine to Elisabeth and asks her if she'd like to meditate. Tet confides to a nonplussed Stefan, "My mom's a lesbian and is probably in love with yours."
Another member of the household is Klas, a young gay medical student with a mop of long blond hair, with bangs and a Prince Valiant cut. He's lonely and forlorn and the only one in the household who yearns to be a housewife. He has his eye on the black-haired, manly, Lasse, who is open-minded but heterosexual. Lasse rejects Klas's repeated advances, gently but firmly (or, should I say, not firmly). Another trio in the household consists of Sigvard (Lars Frode), his wife Signe (Celilia Frode), and their son, Måne (Emil Moodysson), which would be "Moon" in English. They are quiet and somewhat detached from the others, but uncompromising in their ideals. They later leave the commune, when their radical values are violated by compromises that others have made.
Erik wants to talk only about radical leftist politics, but the others mostly argue about whether the pink-blue gender color-coding is a bourgeoisie plot and whether the character "Pippi Longstocking" in a children's book is a stand-in for capitalism and materialism. This is a vegetarian commune with no television allowed, so Eva and Stefan, who come from a lower middle class milieu, are totally lost and bored. Stefan is surly and his disposition is not improved when Tet calls him a fascist for insisting that Tet's gym slippers look like girls' shoes. Later, however, the two boys begin to hit it off. Stefan has legos and guns, neither of which Tet is allowed. He's forbidden war toys and, his father's, being a "naturalist," has promised to make him wooden legos, but has thus far completed only two. There's a funny scene in which Tet and Stefan play "Pinochet," named for the infamous Chilean dictator, taking turns pretending to torture one another.
Eva gets her own private room, at least, though it's a converted storage closet. Mostly she escapes to the commune's obligatory Volkswagen minivan, where she listens to ABBA on the radio. The vehicle is painted in hippy stripes and logos and Eva begs her uncle not to drive her the full distance to school, where the other kids will see it. At home, though, the minivan is her place of seclusion. It also results in her meeting the boy next door, fourteen-year-old Fredrik (Henrik Lundström), a chubby, nerdish kind of kid from a conservative household, where papa spends his time watching the commune through his binoculars or masturbating in his carpentry room in the basement. Fredrik and Eva gradually hit it off, especially after they discover that they have the exact same eyeglass prescription.
Eva has pretty much given up on her father, Rolf (Michael Nyqvist), but Stefan still has a need for him. Rolf is a plumber and makes the acquaintance of a lonely old man, Birger (Sten Ljunggren), who encourages Rolf to do his best to win back his wife and children. Rolf's first such effort goes very poorly. He takes the two children out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, but still manages, in the bathroom, to takes his nips of booze from a flask. When they've left the restaurant, Rolf notices that his wallet is missing and leaves the kids on the street to go back and retrieve it. In the restaurant, he starts an altercation that ends with his arrest. Eva and Stefan wait and wait, but their father never does show up. Stefan refuses to budge, so Eva heads off to the commune on her own. Later, uncle Göran rushes into town to pick up Stefan.
I won't reveal how things develop from there, but Moodysson provides ample surprises. Some new groupings and pairings emerge, which serve to maintain at least a semblance of balance between harmony and chaos.
Themes: I lived in a commune myself, in 1968-9, and, later, in a group marriage. The commune consisted of six adults and four children, in a large household, and the group marriage was composed of four adults and two children, plus an assortment of counterculture types, passing through. There was one guy I remember, in particular, who had some peculiar notion about temporal continuity that manifested in his refusing to ever say "hello" or "goodbye." He had the bizarre habit of simply walking in as if he had been there all along and picking up in the middle of whatever conversation was underway. Then, at some random moment, he would get up and leave, without any indication that he was doing so, and disappear for a few months.
Most of what is depicted in this film happened in one or the other of those two settings, though the tense situations are streamlined and compacted in this film version, for dramatic purposes. In the commune, we had differences of opinion about television or no television, for example, and whose turn it was to do various chores. In the group marriage, we worked out all of those practical issues pretty effectively, but in both situations, there were difficulties with who was going to sleep with whom. We subscribed to open relationships and tried every conceivable method of arranging things (spontaneous choice, rotating schedules, chance, etc.), but someone's feelings would always be hurt. I knew several couples, in those days, that had open marriages and some even managed them without hurting one another, but none of the marriages survived in the long run. In Together, it is Eva and Fredrik who develop the purest love relationship, because it's not complicated by sex. Relationships always get more difficult when sex is added to the equation because sex introduces feelings of possessiveness and jealousy.
Does that mean that unconventional lifestyles are doomed to fail and that we all revert to middleclass norms sooner or later? I don't think so. We experimented in a lot of different ways and some of those experiments succeeded and others failed. Many people I know presently lead alternative lifestyles in one or more of the following respects: diminishing the role of television in the family, vegetarian or vegan diets, choosing natural foods as much as possible, patronizing food coops, recycling and avoiding products that use materials that can't be recycled, meditating, doing yoga, doing drugs or not doing drugs, dressing casually, carpooling to conserve gasoline, and leftist activism. My wife and I still look and act like a couple of unreclamated hippies and our kids have mostly acquired our values to carry into another generation.
Moodysson is very even-handed in this treatment of the issue of lifestyles. He shows us two rather dysfunctional traditional family units and an equally dysfunctional alternative lifestyle community. He shows us that what counts, in the end, is the same: pulling together. One character sums it up with the line, "I'd rather eat porridge together than pork chops alone." It's a lesson that our society still needs to learn. Everyone in this film, young and old, is basically doing the same thing: trying to find their place in the universe. Sometimes they give each other a hand.
Production Values: Moodysson wrote the screenplay for this film, as well as directing it. It's an intelligent script with fresh, natural dialog and witty, wry humor. Moodysson's films are known for strong character portrayals. Although the script here has to juggle eighteen significant characters, about fifteen of them have recognizable personalities by the time the film concludes. What's most impressive is that Moodysson manages to reveal the turmoil of his characters without resorting to lengthy exposition. Part of the credit for that belongs to the performers, but another big share of it is Moodysson's script. Several of the characters develop in significant ways over the course of the film, which further deepens our understanding of them. Moodysson also maintains a very nice balance between humor and drama, which keeps the film from lapsing into either weighty pathos or comic drivel.
The dramatic tension of the film derives from the intersection of two different lifestyles, each arguably dysfunctional in its own particular way. Elisabeth and her children and Fredrik's parents represent conventional middleclass viewpoints, while Gören and his fellow commune dwellers represent the counterculture of the seventies. Elisabeth and, especially, her children, provide a skeptical viewpoint from which to examine the lifestyle experiments in progress within the collective living arrangement. Moodysson has created an effective device for playing one perspective off against another to illuminate the advantages and shortcomings of each.
Much of the story takes place within the confines of the commune, although a few scenes are outdoors or in other buildings. Moodyssson and cinematographer Ulf Brantas do a fine job creating a sense of the kind of claustrophobia that occurs when too many people are crowded into a small living space. Using a lot of tight-in shots, they effectively mimic the uptight emotions. The mise-en-scene captures the look of a seventies commune with posters of Che, Mao, and the Berlin Olympics (though none of those adorned the walls of the groups in which I lived). The soundtrack features groups of the seventies, such as ABBA and Nazareth.
This film features ensemble acting at its best. No one actor dominates the film but all carry their parts effectively and play off one another exceptionally well. Michael Nyqvist has perhaps the most complex role, as Rolf, having to exhibit a wide range of states. Emma Samuelsson is very impressive as thirteen-year-old Eva, but there were also strong performances by a dozen or so other cast members.
Bottom-Line: The World Films DVD provides a widescreen transfer with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The only extra is the theatrical trailer. The dialog is in Swedish. Subtitles are available in English or Spanish. If you lived any part of the counterculture of the sixties and seventies, this film will bring back fond memories (as well as long-forgotten hurts) in a way that'll make you laugh good-naturedly at yourself and your contemporaries. If you never lived through that time or never experienced the counterculture of those decades, here is a chance to learn both from our mistakes and from your own.