The key to the protean Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson’s career is wrapped up in his feature debut, 1998’s Fucking Åmål, released in some countries with the far less declarative title Show Me Love. For clarity, “Åmål” isn’t a person; it’s a town. And “Fucking” isn’t sexual; it’s condemnatory, like “all the damn vampires,” or “shut the fuck up, Donny.” Viewers who suffered through teenhood in podunk burgs, know how Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) feels when she barks the film’s name. Backwards-facing, square as Bomont: Fucking Åmål!
Elin, starved of what’s hip and new and cool, is easily hyped up, but finds a sweet moment of respite watching television with her mother. The lottery’s on. The mood is calm. Elin tells mom about the latest eruption between her and her sister Jessica (Erica Carlson); she wonders if they have the same father, which mom assures her they do. “Haven’t you got a lottery ticket?” Elin asks. Mom doesn’t. “Why are we looking at it then?” Elin says, sulking. “I thought we’d win a car.”
Mom rummages around for words to make her answer, which is halting, but profound. “It’s fun to watch when someone wins,” she replies. “See how much they win.” Elin shows unsurprisingly little patience for her mom’s wisdom. “Totally meaningless,” she huffs. But she’s wrong, or at least she’s in conflict with Moodysson, who according to his own filmography shares mom’s sentiment. It is fun to watch someone win.
Categorizing Moodysson’s characters by varied degrees of winning is admittedly somewhat coarse. Consider the material of 2004’s A Hole in My Heart, 2009’s Mammoth, and especially 2002’s Lilya 4-Ever, Moodysson’s harshest production to date, where a teenage girl takes every form of psychological and physical abuse that can be inflicted on a young woman; the movie ends, as can only be expected, in horror, as well as metaphysical ambiguity expressed through angel wings and time travel, which is slightly less expected. But it’s possible to reconcile Fucking Åmål’s philosophy of winning with the extremities visited in Moodysson’s cinema, not just because that’s the job when surveying a filmmaker’s work as a whole entity, but because we are invited to by Moodysson himself.
“In the real world terrible things happen all the time,” Moodysson told Swedish news outlet The Local in 2004. “It’s good to feel bad after a film. I think that it’s psychopathic to not feel bad about the way the world looks.” Each of his feature fictions, newly collected by Arrow Video in The Lukas Moodysson Collection, stirs up bad feeling, if not to the final shot then in the moments just preceding it; they’re neither “feel bad” movies nor “feel good” films, but “feel good about feeling bad” films, and arguably vice versa while we’re at it. If they don’t end in ugliness, then they comprise great quantities of it that Moodysoon only bothers balancing out before the credits. Much as he encourages the healthy practice of allowing art to make us feel like shit, Elin’s mom is his kindred spirit: He wants his characters to win, and for us to watch them win.
Fucking Åmål, a film likely underseen by American audiences who flocked to Moodysson’s last picture, We Are the Best!, back in 2013, is the floodgate for his magnanimity. (If that 10 year gap is dismaying, cheer up: He has a new movie out this year.) Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg), Moodysson’s other lead, has a crush on Elin; Elin has no idea. After 80 minutes of awkward stolen kisses, bullying, both standard-issue and homophobic, sibling rivalry, confused feelings muddled by hormonal teenage chaos, and self-harm, Elin recognizes and accepts that she like-likes Agnes, too; they literally and symbolically come out of a water closet, hand in hand and all smiles, to bring the film to its denouement. Living in a black hole like Åmål is bad enough, and made worse by the suffocating uncertainty of unrequited infatuation, but the girls prevail.
Family likewise prevails in Together, Moodysson’s 2000 sophomore film. (That new Moodysson movie coming soon? It’s a sequel to this one.) The center of the story’s universe is a Stockholm commune, around which each character orbits and into which each character is sucked in, starting with Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren); she’s seen packing up her children, Eva (Emma Samuelsson) and Stefan (Sam Kessel) and getting them out of their flat, leaving behind her husband and their father, Rolf (Michael Nyqvist, dearly departed), who gave Elisabeth a split lip the night before. No longer able to tolerate his rage or subject the kids to it, she moves in with her brother Göran (Gustaf Hammarsten), the nominal chief of the house he shares with a half dozen other folks, though he isn’t much of a leader; it would defeat the purpose, and leading isn’t in his comfort zone.
Can a movie end on a happy note when happiness is derived from Rolf and Elisabeth’s reconciliation? The demographic of modern viewers who expect cinema to be ethical and to serve justice, and in so doing serving their narcissistic comforts, might say “no.” But Moodysson says “yes.” Together is about, yes, the necessity of togetherness, and how people crumble in isolation. It isn’t good to be lonely. Being together isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, either; Göran’s ex-spouse housemates Lasse (Ola Rapace) and Anna (Jessica Liedberg) bicker almost constantly, his own girlfriend Lena (Anja Lundqvist) nudges him into an open relationship against his obvious misgivings, and Klas (Shanti Roney) hopelessly carries a torch for Lasse. Togetherness breeds intermittent friction. So it goes.
But it still beats being alone. Rolf’s neighbor, Birger (Sten Ljunggren), is so damn lonely, he keeps busting his own sink just so Rolf will come over and fix it. Rolf is lonely, too, his only company being his self-loathing. He needs Elisabeth more than he needs her, and to prove he’s turned over a new leaf, he does the unthinkable: He washes the dishes. No one else in the house will. Washing dishes is bourgeois. The gesture has its effect, though, as do his pronouncements of change; by the end of the movie he’s playing soccer in the snow with Eva and Stefan, and Elisabeth, and Birger, until the whole house has emptied and everyone, in a true moment of togetherness, is kicking the ball around, cheering their own goals, cheering for others’. What brings people together more than sport? (Other than cinema.) It’s the glue that bonds Lily (Oksana Akinshina) to Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky) in the final scene of Lilya 4-Ever, too.
The difference is that they’re both dead, adorned with angel wings, though there is room to quibble over Lilya’s fate. She may have won a rare second chance to go back to the moment her life changed for the worse and make a better choice, the right choice, and thus stayed alive. The wings suggest otherwise. Unlike Moodysson’s other movies, Lilya 4-Ever plumbs the depths of human atrocity and gets in touch with spirituality to a fantastical level: Lilya, gangraped by classmates and trafficked by a man who also rapes her on her arrival in Sweden from her homeland, Russia, endures Hell on Earth before finding Heaven on her old tenement building’s rooftop. There are filmmakers who would end this story in the ambulance where Lilya breathes her last after leaping off a bridge. Moodysson isn’t one of them. He wants her to win.
In Lilya 4-Ever, “winning” is represented as mercy on the soul. It’s a distinction worth making in contrast to the rest of his movies, which are otherwise more grounded and relatable. We Are the Best!, for instance, concludes with friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), Klara (Mira Grosin), and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) earning the brag in the title; they don’t even care that a jerk in earshot tells them that they’re the worst, actually, because all that matters is what they think of themselves (though causing a minor uproar at a youth club’s Christmas show would give any punk rock band a major ego boost). Theirs is a small victory. But that’s the kind of victory Moodysson favors: The ones most of us get to savor in life.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.