Despite being one of Europe's major annual film events, the Gothenburg Film Festival, now in its thirty-second year, has not received much press on this side of the Atlantic. Yet with more than 450 films screening from around the world, Sweden's biggest celebration of cinema, located in the country's second largest city, following Stockholm, deserves to be more than a mere footnote to Cannes, Berlin and Venice, not to mention Rotterdam, San Sebastian, and Locarno.
Perhaps the reason for many American critics' willful ignorance of the festival is its unerring dedication to Scandinavian cinema, which inarguably has been struggling for attention on the international stage since Bergman fell out of fashion. With its annual Nordic competition (and its sales-oriented sidebar, the Nordic Film Market, now in its tenth edition), the Gothenburg Film Festival displays a commendable pride in its showcase of works from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland. Certainly, the stereotype that many maintain of Scandinavian cinema (austere, psychological dramas set in harsh remote or urban settings) continues to course evidently throughout many of the films on display at this year's festival; yet as a very particular brand of state-financed art cinema has grown increasingly homogenized across Europe, it would now seem more disingenuous than ever to reduce Scandinavian cinema to a series of gestures and tropes.
A handful of the films in this year's festival went a long way in demolishing those cliches, even as others re-established just what it was that heightened our antennae toward them in the first place. Swedish filmmaker Mans Herngren's "The Swimsuit Issue," with its vaguely "Full Monty"--esque dive into masculine repression and its alleviation via feminine-coded performance (a team of manly handballers [giggle] train themselves as synchronized swimmers for money and, ultimately, self-worth), barely manages to rise above its oppressively twee conceit.
Therefore, a film like Heidi Maria Faisst's "The Blessing," a Danish nerve-jangler about one woman's postpartum perplexity, comes as something of a relief: if not exactly a revelation, this is still Nordic drama as we hope it'll be, not as stagnant psychological portraiture, but as a searing series of gestures and moments brought to thrilling, immediate life. Featuring a terrifically lost performance by Laerke Winther Andersen, as a seemingly irrecoverable new parent frightened of repeating her own mother's at once overbearing and neglectful behavior, "The Blessing" is immersed in an at-times unbearably narrow headspace that still leaves room for emotional opacity. The FIPRESCI jury of international critics apparently agreed, citing it with its award (fascinatingly, despite its refusal to reinstate a solid grounding of family values, it also won the annual Church of Sweden Film Award).
Of course, Andersen's stricken young mother wasn't the only woman in crisis in the festival's selection of Scandinavian films. In Swedish director Beata Gardeler's "In Your Veins," a heroin-addicted female cop hides her dirty secret, often implausibly, from her fellow policemen, including her steadfast new boyfriend, who can't understand why she starts shaking and frothing when their car stalls in the middle of the countryside or notices that she sneaks out every night in a daze only to return comfy and cozy in the morning, post-fix. Despite the film's obvious contrivances, the actors are gorgeous (even amidst withdrawal) and the crisp, wintry cinematography grants the whole project an emotional clarity its narrative sometimes fumbles.
The same balance is at play in Dome Karukoski's "Forbidden Fruit," a Finnish coming-of-age tale about two young girls who break free (one tentatively, one seemingly without inhibitions) not only from the barren countryside but also their strict Lutheran sect, and venture into the big, bad urban world for a taste of alcohol, a splotch of makeup, and a healthy dose of teenage sexual experimentation. From this possibly salacious material comes a surprisingly restrained and superlatively well-acted (especially by the sly Amanda Pilke) film that strikes an impressive negotiation in its portrait of liberation versus repression. In other words, it's hardly an antiauthoritarian tract, even as it lays out the groundwork for a healthy, redemptive emergence from the shell of constrictive religion.
We're all in crisis in Swedish sensation Ruben Ostlund's "Involuntary," which premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard section. In a series of Michael Haneke-like single takes, a handful of disconnected, mostly character-driven stories ruminate on the different ways in which individuals are affected by groupthink. The violence here is mostly emotional, but always hard-hitting. And if at times Ostlund's portrait of behavioral dynamics can seem oppressively overdetermined, both in its boxed-in, largely immobile aesthetic and its linear march towards seeming societal doom, the film's rigorous technique obviously speaks of a filmmaker who's in complete artistic control of his material.
In the face of such fascinating formal experimentation, perhaps the less said about Ella Lemhagen's sweet-natured but silly-beyond-belief "Patrik Age 1.5" the better: trying for a cross-cultural understanding but often surrendering to a litany of gay stereotypes (apparently grown gay men keep Dolly Parton posters and Tom of Finland books hanging around the house in Sweden as much as they do in the U.S . . . oh wait, no, we don't) the film puts forth the preposterous idea that a bureaucratic error sends a 15-year-old boy into the home of a thirtysomething same-sex couple who had applied for a 1.5 year-old, and then dares to make a melodrama out of it rather than exploit its comic potential. I've also been trying to erase from my memory the scenes in which the homophobic teenage thug (who's nice when it suits the script) teaches his new foster dad how to defend himself against gay-bashers. Thanks for the life lessons.
Of course, not everything at Gothenburg reflected the latest in Scandinavia's cinematic output: such phenomenal recent festival favorites as Claire Denis's tactile, poignant Ozu update "35 Rhums," Lisandro Alonso's devastating Argentinean minimalist drama "Liverpool," and Haile Gerima's strikingly guttural Ethiopian-French coproduction "Teza," all still unavailable in the U.S., made welcome appearances. And of course, there had to be a touch of Bergman, and what better way to reconsider the effect of Swedish dramatic principles on contemporary cinema than with a showing of the master filmmaker's 1971 Elliott Gould-starring "The Touch?" Both loathed and admired, the film is sometimes the breaking point for some viewers in accepting its auteur's practiced evocation of sexual and emotional discord, but in the face of such rank recent examples of domestic drudgery and strife as "Little Children" and "Revolutionary Road," the honest, plaintive "The Touch" feels increasingly like the real deal. It may be a cliche, but this is what we go to Scandinavian cinema for.