Movie Review Double Feature: Fucking Åmål and Primer

Superficially, these two movies have almost nothing in common, other than having been shot on film. Fucking Åmål (which I shall henceforth refer to by its English title, Show Me Love) is a slow-paced, deeply character driven romance by Swedish director Lukas Moodysson. Primer is a low-budget science fiction film (with a heavy emphasis on the science) by first time director/writer/actor/editor/composer Shane Carruth. What they have in common is a devotion to realism that you don't often see in film.

Show Me Love is about two Swedish high school girls who fall in love with one another. Jesus, that makes it sound like porno. It's not porno. Despite the title there's no fucking in the movie. Well, there is fucking, but it's off-camera, and it's heterosexual fucking, so who cares? Elin's a popular girl who hates living in a small town and has gotten bored with life. Agnes is a smart girl who's deeply unpopular and has a crush on Elin. Elin finds out about Agnes's feelings when she plays a prank on her, then feels bad about it and apologizes.

What's intriguing about the movie is its authenticity. You watch it and you don't feel as though you're watching people reading lines from a script. The dialogue isn't clever, but it's realistic. People do things that don't make sense, just as they do in real life. The director includes scenes that don't move the plot forward, but do give you a deeper sense of the characters. The plot doesn't drive this movie. There's barely any plot at all, for that matter. Just the girls and their conflicted emotions.

The movie ends when they decide to get together, and it works. We know their relationship won't last. They're young, they don't know what they're doing, and Elin's clearly just experimenting. But that's not the point. The point isn't to tell the story of an eternal romance to last through the ages. The point is to show us raw young love, in the first stages of a romance. The movie gets to precisely the point when love is at its most brilliant, when they've decided to commit to one another, before they become a couple and their love becomes ordinary and institutionalized in a relationship. And then it ends.

Primer is also dedicated to realism, which is an odd thing to say about a science fiction film. For starters, it's a science fiction film that is very heavy on science. Science Fiction tends to get divided into Hard SF and Soft SF (or, if you're Harlan Ellison and want to excise the Science from your SF entirely, Speculative Fiction). SF in general tends to be about how people deal with and react to new technologies and environments, but Hard SF gets very hung up on the technical details of how the new technology works, of justifying the fictional leaps that create the backdrop for the story by explaining that, yes, this could plausibly happen. Primer is pretty hard SF. In a sense, it reminds me of Neal Stephenson's justification for calling his Baroque Trilogy Science Fiction, despite being set in the 17th Century and featuring no new technologies or alien worlds. He argued that it was science fiction, not because it had the trappings of the genre, but because it was fiction about science and scientists. That's what Primer is: fiction about science. Of course, it's also pretty heavily science fiction in the classic sense.

There's another sense in which Primer is dedicated to realism, this time in its dialogue. One of the aspects of film that you don't notice unless it's done poorly is exposition. This is where the film tells you what's going on, what's happened, etc. It can be handled ham-handedly ("Remember that time the institute gave us money to travel down the amazon and capture that creature, and that's why we're here now?") or it can be handled subtley. Or, in the case of Primer, it can be avoided entirely. This is realistic, insofar as it's seldom that you stop and recap the events of your life for the benefit of an invisible audience. It can also be very frustrating. The movie concerns a device built by some engineers in their garage. It does something very peculiar. We see them learning what it does, but they never say, "Hey! This thing does *Blank!*" Instead, we see what happens after they use the machine to do *Blank!* only we don't know what it's done. We know the machine does something, we know they know what the machine does, we know they're doing it, but we have no idea what it is. By the time we figure it out the plot's moved a mile ahead, at each step only hinting and insinuating at what's happening, and we've lost all chance of figuring out what's happening. In a sense, that's the point. The characters know more than we do about what's happening, but not much more.

So it's frustrating, but it's also compelling. You want to know what the hell's going on. You want to watch it over and over. Once you know what it is that the machine does, you can watch it again knowing that from the start and piece together a few more of the things that don't make sense. I imagine you can, with a dozen viewings, figure out what it typically takes a movie only one viewing to tell you. It helps that the cinematography is handled so well. I watched this movie with no idea of how much it cost, and was stunned to find out it was made on $7,000. It looks really good.

Overall, I liked Show Me Love a bit better than Primer, but I went in expecting more of Show Me Love. I'm a big Lukas Moodysson fan, and I'd recommend any of his works (Though I like Tilsammans (Together) the best, and Lilja-4-Ever should only be viewed if you're looking for the most depressing film you can conceive of and do not, personally, have a problem with never again being able to experience joy in your life). Still, though, both are recommended.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on November 7, 2005 8:58 PM.

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