A couple of Sundays ago we ended up in Bratton in Wiltshire, close to the town of Westbury. It’s remarkable that this particular corner of England stills feel quite remote and not comprehensively navigated, with the rather startling natural terrain enhancing the impression that the environs have not quite been tamed and put in their place. The hills feel unduly steep; the trees swoop up into vision, full of leafy life but rather ominously resembling mushroom clouds in the process. The priory church at nearby Edington also seems to leap out of the landscape and truly dominate the small community in which it resides. This is all certainly impressive; it’s also beauty of a very challenging nature.
Whilst in the Duke pub at Bratton, I took advantage of the fact this was a Moles Brewery outlet to have a pint of Moles Best. It was creamy and rounded and felt mild at the time – but definitely had a bit of an after-kick at 4pc. Funny how beer creeps up on you in that way.
At the same time, the familiar I Want To Know What Love Is by Foreigner was playing at the jukebox. One cosy soft rock classic too many for some of you, perhaps – but it was this, along with my other collective experiences that afternoon, which for me sparked initial associations with one of the truly great directorial debuts in European cinema, Lukas Moodysson’s 1998 offering Fucking Åmal (retitled Show Me Love for English-speaking markets for understandable reasons). Not least because the subtle displacement of preconceptions about semi-rural life, small communities and commodities we might consider cosily reassuring or, as the Swedes might say, lagom (roughly translated, nicely moderate or just about right) is something done by Moodysson in sophisticated fashion and to great effect as he depicts a similarly sparsely populated community in his homeland of Sweden (we’ll get to the Foreigner link in due course).
It’s all right for adults to dwell on the virtues of a quiet pint of beer on a nice quiet Sunday afternoon in the countryside whilst contemplating the various shades of the landscape. Part of the simple but effective genius of Fucking Åmal is that Moodysson, a renowned and published poet well before his twentieth birthday, understands exactly what it is like to be young and feel like every day is as dead as Sunday afternoon. For the would-be lovers Elin and Agnes, protracted stimulation and extreme experience seem to be their only chance of spiritual fulfilment if they are to break free of the rut of embarrassing and uninspiring parents, pseudo-friends, inadequate boys, cumbersome siblings and smalltown ennui.
And, of course, when you’re a teenager desperate for new experiences, there’s no such thing as a quiet pint. Moodysson pulls no punches in showing Elin, superficially emblematic in many respects of the prototype high-school princess, overwhelmed by alcohol and puking at a party (and subsequently subjected to the overtures of well-meaning but clumsy suitor Johan). With both Elin and Agnes infuriated by their uninspiring surroundings, they appear guilty in a comical way of their own kind of parochialism.
Elin, both scornful of her elder sister Jessica (‘She’s really lame and I’m really cool’) and often all too susceptible to Jessica’s own fashion victim credentials (especially when Jessica refers Elin to a teen magazine report that raves are no longer trendy) is reduced to the point where she considers popping her mother’s herbal vitamin supplements simply to get high (as Jessica affectionately but sadly points out, that’s not going to work). Agnes, denied even any party-going activity by the spiteful prejudice of her peers, performs a well-known obtuse gesture any parent of a teenager is familiar with: being desperate not to admit mum and dad might have something in common with you (in her case, reading a book by Edith Södergran and warding her father off when he quotes one of Södergran’s poems – although admittedly Agnes has good reason to feel desperately unhappy at this stage of the narrative).
In this respect, the movie certainly doesn’t overly deride lagom or moderation any more than it derides the rural surroundings of Elin and Agnes’ community. One extremely astutely realised motif in the film is that an obstacle to Elin and Agnes declaring their love for one another is Elin’s relationship with Johan Hult (the result of Elin desperately trying to bury her feelings for Agnes and conform with what she feels are society’s norms). Importantly, Johan can hardly be called unattractive and full of macho incivility like the Lee character within the masterful love triangle at the heart of the early 21st-century BBC TV classic The Office; if anything, he is conspicuously shy and overly anxious to please everyone around him. His classic teenage awkwardness (nervously trying to get the inch-perfect look on a very standard Nike baseball cap prior to wooing Elin) is more likely to induce sympathy, as is the fact he, like Agnes, seems to be a long-term admirer of Elin (a concept nicely signalled by the fact he is introduced so early in the film).
The film makes a profound point in this respect by pointing out that characters rather less quixotic and inspired than Elin and Agnes are still human and still deserve to be loved. Jessica is capable of realising that Johan does not carry out the tiresome red-blooded posturing she continually endures in the company of her boyfriend Markus; it’s cleverly intimated right through to the end that Jessica and Johan might be kindred lagom spirits (the ongoing turbulence of their teenage years notwithstanding).
In such a community where adolescents are engrossed in their own lives and pre-occupied with finding all-cure solutions amid a minefield of pubescent confusion, the rural environment rather predictably often appears almost incidental to proceedings. Like my experiences in Bratton, one hazards a guess that there is plenty of auspicious countryside in the vicinity of the real-life town of Åmal (not least the vast Lake Vänern) and the nearby location of Trollhattan where Fucking Åmal was chiefly filmed. However, in this film at least, the slow pace of life as it is depicted offers no succour to some of those at an awkward age and indefinitely on another wavelength.
One of the most telling scenes in the film opens with the sound of birdsong and ends with Elin furiously disowning Jessica, the latter having suspected her younger sister of having an affair with Markus (of course, it’s Agnes who has stolen Elin’s heart). This represents the rural idyll as much as the spectacle of Jessica herself having to stop her boyfriend from getting into a fight down at the all-purpose bus shelter/kiosk teen hang-out. But, as stressed, it is not the quiet countryside surroundings that are entirely to blame (the least claustrophobic moment of Elin and Johan’s brief relationship may indeed be when they go out into the woods on Johan’s moped, the boy having thoughtfully given the girl his helmet).
Rather, Moodysson suggests, teenage frustration stems at least in part from well-meaning but uninspired town planning highly common to many Northern European towns and possibly effected rather like a copycat reflex action in this sense. The town depicted in this movie is full of pedestrian walkways, pedestrian bridges, pedestrian-friendly cul-de-sacs and play parks in pedestrian areas, and yet, ironically, evokes the word pedestrian precisely in the sense of being drab and formulaic. This in itself is a symbol of the divides Elin and Agnes need to conquer in order to articulate their reciprocal affection.
(Andrew Brown points out in the excellent book Fishing In Utopia that Moodysson’s subsequent film, Tillsammans/Together, makes a similar point about life in Swedish apartment blocks in the 1970s. Brown notes that the socially secure but emotionally lonely divorcee Birger deliberately breaks his lavatory so that he can have a conversation with the similarly abandoned plumber, Rolf. It’s worth noting that in the late 1990s timeframe of Fucking Åmal, tenement resident Elin feels obliged to pull a pretty similar trick – pretending she needs to use the bathroom and being ready to unnecessarily flush lavatories and run taps in order to gain access to Agnes’ rather more middle-class house, and, therefore, her life. Moodysson is certainly not disrespectful of the Swedish capacity to love and connect with one another. He just points out some related social and spatial sensitivities particular to Sweden here but with which all of us might sympathise.)
At the same time, Moodysson challenges our own snobbery about modern popular culture and forces us to consider how it may evoke something truly uplifting. In Tillsammans/Together, the use of ABBA’s SOS is not intended to kickstart another tired ‘comical’ overview of 1970s kitsch but instead offers a genuinely incisive comment on the fluctuating relationship between Rolf and his wife Elisabeth. In one of Fucking Åmal’s two most remarkable scenes (the other being the climax of the movie), Agnes and Elin are drawn to one another in a fashion that somehow embraces both the pure innocence of fairytales such as Cinderella and The Ugly Duckling and the charged romanticism of Gustav Klimt’s infamous 1895 picture Love without being discomforting or voyeuristic. And this victory of the heart unfolds to the sound of…I Want To Know What Love Is by Foreigner.
Which is where we go back to my ostensible quiet pint in a quiet pub in a quiet village. It was impossible not to think of this remarkable and triumphant scene in the movie – one of the great moments in modern world cinema – the moment I heard the strains of Foreigner. At one point I might have thought of it as standard middle-of-the-road music, but Moodysson uses associations to turn our cultural preconceptions on their head – just as the whole film constantly challenges and provokes thought. It seems implausible that a romantic relationship between Elin and Agnes might even come to fruition, never mind survive, in the awful, judgemental pressure cooker atmosphere of high/secondary school, but Moodysson manages to fuse enough optimism with enough realism to offer a remarkable denouement in this respect.
As such, the conventional ‘sensible parent/naive, rebellious lovelorn doomed adolescent’ dynamic has the rug pulled out from under its feet, with Agnes’ mother by her own admission going beyond the pale by intruding into Agnes’ private life after belatedly realising her daughter is a lesbian (amusingly, Agnes’ small brother appears far more clued up than their mother on this one). It is Agnes’ very own good sense and patience that will be vital to realising a relationship if the younger Elin is to unchain herself of her own caution, but Agnes knows that she cannot afford to wait forever (as she tellingly says to her kind but emotionally fumbling father, ‘I’d rather be happy now than in twenty five years’). Conversely, the fact Elin is a couple of years younger than her social peers may be a blessing in that she appears far more open-minded than her colleagues (certainly more so than the institutionalised, insular and downright unpleasant Camilla). Just as I found the topography and scenery of Bratton and Edington packed a rather disproportionate and unexpected punch, this film shows that no town can be considered too small and too quiet if young love can be found there.
Fucking Åmal may be a relatively short and low-key film, but on a shortlist of the greatest ever Swedish feature pictures, it would push Ingmar Bergman’s epic masterpiece Fanny and Alexander hard to any imagined finishing line. Perhaps that’s appropriate given that both films ultimately manage to combine a life-affirming and naturalistic analysis of Swedish society and its citizens at their best (civil, liberal, tolerant, sturdy) with some genuine ‘fairytale’ components and, vitally, an understanding of the wisdom and the potency of children even as adults incoherently flail and neglect their youngers or assume that moderation in all things will do the trick (a quality also pertinent within both Tillsammans/Together and the subsequent Moodysson follow-up, Lilja 4Ever). Ultimately, all these films suggest, we cannot pursue happiness as we think others around us perceive it, but must realise it on our own terms. By which logic I’m thoroughly looking forward to seeing all these movies once again in the future, re-educating myself, and having a couple of pints of Moles Best in the process.