Sunday, 27 February 2011

Cinema Strange #12. Container (Lukas Moodysson, 2006)

Moodysson channels Warhol for his experimental art flick Container (2008)

It's hard to say what Lukas Moodysson was thinking when he made Container. After being dubbed 'the new Bergman' after the release of his 1998 feature debut Show Me Love (aka Fucking Åmål), Bergman himself stepped up to the plate to proclaim the film "a young master's first masterpiece." Quite what the auteur behind Winter Light (1963) would have to say about this almost insufferable mess is probably closely in line with what the rest of us are thinking: what on Earth happened Moodysson? Show Me Love was a tenderly human film, and the directors following two features expanded upon themes and ideas to form the beginnings of a distinctively heartfelt oeuvre. This was soon abandoned, however, in the name of 2004's art-horror-experiment A Hole In My Heart which, among other things, contained detailed vaginal surgery and intense scenes of vomiting. Container may be a cleaner film, with avant-garde roots in the worlds of Stan Brakhage (Sirius Remembered, 1959), Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures, 1963, is directly referenced) and Andy Warhol (Chelsea Girls, 1966), but it is also demonstrably inaccessible - indeed, anyone stumbling into this nightmarish magic box because of the presence of Jenna Malone as narrator ("I'm an American actress") will be not so much surprised by what they find as positively flummoxed and repulsed. Stream-of-consciousness dialogue puts porn star Savannah (who after a drug-induced car crash shot herself in the head in 1994) in the same sentence as the Holocaust, and Chernobyl (where some of the film was shot). One line reads "Bloody pissant, stop pissing in my stomach", and is shortly followed by childish dreamlike fantasies of stopping nuclear war with yoghurt. Some of the dialogue is admittedly poetic, and read in a seductive whisper by Malone it can be quite intoxicating, but it's also dreadfully pretentious and alienating - seemingly as much an experiment in endurance as anything else.

That's the overriding question that kept hitting me during Container. Is this genuine or a joke? Does Moodysson seriously believe the images he presents have depth and meaning, or is he playing with the cinematic arena afforded him by the critical success of his first three features? He has since gone back to narrative storytelling and a focus on human relationships with 2009's Mammoth, starring Michelle Williams and Gael García Bernal. So what was this? More to the point, what is it? Malone got the part of narrator after she wrote a fan letter to Moodysson, so perhaps he built the script around her, from her point of view? Or is the monologue more internal - the confessions, desires and bitter resentments of "a girl in a boy's body" - represented by two protagonists (Peter Lorentzon, Mariha Åberg) who may or may not be the same person. Or perhaps it is the director himself, essaying the cruel, invasive age of celebrity (one scene speaks of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the paparazzi stalking the stable trying to get "a shot of the Virgin Mary's tits"). But there is also considerable time dedicated to essaying loneliness and the desperation and depression that arises from such a fractured state. I mentioned before that some of the dialogue is poetic, but it's also emotional; sometimes the causticity and cynicism can sting and leave a mark that's hard to ignore. The screenplay is the star and highlight of the film, and certain choices of words and metaphors are still rolling around in my mind. This is never better exemplified than in the disturbingly personal essay on gender and sexuality, discomfort and internal disturbance - the film is at its most interesting here as a kind of arthouse body horror, examining fear through dialogue and obscure cross-cutting of images, rather than the more explicitly literal genre pics of David Cronenberg (The Fly, 1986). Also present in the film are discussions of war and nuclear attack (especially Chernobyl and its devastation), and an account of the dangers of voyeurism. This may all sound very interesting, but it's also meandering, unfocused and without any point - and Moodysson's seeming pretensions of artistic grandeur fall flat in some of the more confrontational images that recall his last mistake.

He describes the film as "a silent movie with sound", and the tone of that overambitious and pompous remark pretty much sums up the entirety of Container. It's not totally without merit, but its merits are lost in a sea of been-there-done-that poseur ideas; even the interesting camerawork feels rehashed from artists previously mentioned, especially Brakhage, whose compositions seem to be a clear influence on the cinematography and editing employed by Moodysson for this picture. The schizophrenic framework of the film just doesn't feel fresh enough to hold the weight of its thematic 'substance'. He may be trying on big boots but Moodysson is not yet fit to wear them, and while Container is not quite the cinematic equivalent to somebody setting fire to their career the flames still feel a little too close for comfort... ostentatious and pseudo-intellectual, this shambolic art flick impresses in the screenplay department but falls over itself everywhere else. As Sight&Sound's Henry K. Miller highlighted, it's a much more interesting note in Malone's career than Moodysson's, as she challenges her star persona and power with some unflinchingly dark material. I think she's far more aware of herself than her director, and as an actors experiment Container might hold something of note after all...

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