Like Bergman and Renoir before him, Lukas Moodysson is intent on creating masterpieces in confined spaces.
It’s easy to fail in films that are almost solely about human relations—even before any plot is unfurled. If the characters don’t have a fundamental core of likeability, the audience won’t feel the empathy necessary for both drama and comedy. Likewise, if the characters are too simple and nice and Disney-fied, there’s no empathy there, either. There is an extremely narrow alley for success, and striking that balance—or even being aware that the balance is necessary—confounds many filmmakers’ best efforts.
But Moodysson, a 31-year-old Swede who made 1997’s delicate lesbian love story/small-town alienation tale Show Me Love, seems intrigued by the challenge of working with such small margin for error. He has a remarkable touch and feeling for the delicacies of human life that seem obvious when we live them, but that rarely surface in art. His latest is Together, which adds a layer of political and generational commentary to another story of people living their extraordinary everyday lives.
Packed with dozens of the humanistic touches most films don’t even understand, Together is a friendly and accessible picture, particularly given its obscure setting: a commune in the Stockholm suburbs in 1975. “Together” (or “Tillsammans,” the Swedish word) is the commune’s name, scrawled on the side of the inhabitants’ Volkswagen bus and representing everything to which this motley collection of Swedes aspires.
The story begins with Goran (Gustaf Hammarsten), who’s more or less the central figure in this egalitarian setting, waking up to a radio bulletin announcing Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s death. Everybody in the commune hugs and kisses. Even the children get into the act, chanting, “Franco is dead!”
Elsewhere in the commune, there’s a medical student and a gay guy who has a crush on him. There’s the medical student’s ex-wife, who has decided she’s a very serious lesbian and she’s going to score with somebody right freaking now. There’s also a really cool old-school communist named Erik (Olle Sarri) who’s always pissed off because nobody else is as dedicated to the cause, whatever that may be.
These are excitable, clever, sometimes silly people united by their fundamental surety of their moral superiority in a changing world. Still, their insistently outmoded lifestyle leads to plenty of conflict—especially when Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren), Goran’s sister, arrives to seek refuge from her abusive, alcoholic husband. While the rest of the commune looks at her sideways, her children provide the perspective of outsiders on this narrow little world. Thirteen-year-old Eva sums up the commune thusly: “We have ugly clothes, and we listen to bad music.”
Like Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, Together does a marvelous job of capturing the 1970s’ uncertain grasp of time and place. It’s obvious that transition in the world is imminent, but it’s impossible for the characters to understand fully where they’re going, or what will propel them that way. We find ourselves wondering about the characters’ futures; some will end up driving station wagons and shuttling kids to soccer practice, we’re sure, but some might never give up the idealism that defined their lives to this point.
Moodysson also takes great pleasure in poking at the dynamics of commune living, including the laborious attempts at casual sex among people who know each other too well to live so randomly without problems. His film is terribly funny, though not often in a laugh-out-loud manner. Even when we’re unbelievably annoyed by his increasingly self-centered and confused characters, we don’t stop wondering where they’re headed.
Moodysson’s rambling camera work and burgeoning cast recall Robert Altman, but Moodysson is much more sentimental than Altman usually allows himself to be. He cares about these characters as if they were products of his dreams, which they obviously are. It’s a privilege to be allowed inside his head.
Together (R) HHH1/2 Directed by Lukas Moodysson. Starring Gustaf Hammarsten, Lisa Lindgren and Michael Nyqvist.