Living in the Afterglow
For those nostalgic for the heyday of European art cinema, Together, the new film from Swedish director Lukas Moodysson (Fucking Amal) offers a double treat. Not only does Together revive the formal attributes of the triumphs of Bergman, Antonioni, and Truffaut (i.e., character-driven storytelling, psychological realism, unmotivated stylistic flourishes), it also resuscitates and romanticizes the radical collective as subject matter.
At the same time, by adopting a sitcom-ish attitude to narrative and character motivation, Moodysson both trivializes a vital human impulse to re-envision and remake society on one’s own terms, and flattens out the political complexities of a specific historical context. The neo-hippie protagonists of the Together enclave live in the afterglow of the halcyon events of ‘68; they could be the younger siblings of whom Jean-Luc Godard christened “children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” those who challenged the capitalist monolith in Masculin-Feminin (1966) and La Chinoise (1967). Stuck in the comparatively benign bourgeoisie of Stockholm 1975, Moodysson’s peaceniks seem strangely unaffected by politics or ideological struggle, which presumably drove them to drop out of the mainstream to begin with. They have as little use for Marx as they have for Coke (although these vegetarians are not above eating the occasional hot dog).
Perhaps the key filmic antecedent for Together is not early-middle work by Godard, but Swiss director Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, the 1976 arthouse hit about a group of leftists suffering from a ‘60s hangover, who pin what’s left of their dashed hopes for the future onto Jonah, the newborn son of two of their number. (“The whale of history will spit out Jonah who will be 25 in the year 2000,” chant the friends near the film’s conclusion, “That’s the time left for us to help him get off the shit-pile.”) If, rather than transform the world into a workers’ paradise, 25-year-old Jonah went on to film school, Together is probably the sort of movie he would end up making: part affectionate tribute to and part caustic send-up of his parents’ generation.
Accordingly, Together has been embraced by both sides: the left, for its sympathetic rendition of the counterculture’s alternative lifestyles, and the right, for its exposure of that culture’s suffocating hubris. Both readings are legitimate, even encouraged by the film’s narrative design, and this is a politically canny move by Moodysson (who is in fact 31, not 25), yet one which also suggests a measure of gutlessness. The catalyst for the plot is the arrival of battered housewife Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren) and her two perpetually glum kids at the Together house. Elisabeth is the sister of de facto commune leader Goran (Gustaf Hammarsten), an endlessly equivocating fellow who recedes in the presence of the collective’s more forceful personalities: the sexually adventurous Lena (Anja Lundqvist), Goran’s ostensible partner; Lasse (Ola Norell), a jaded med student; Erik (Olle Sarri), an uptight Communist and unlikely object of Lena’s affection; and Anna (Jessica Liedberg), a proudly (and newly) committed lesbian who awakens Elisabeth to the potentially liberating effects of leaving one’s underarms unshaven.
The ensuing couplings and recouplings transform the film into a thin, sometimes low farce about mating and its perils. Yet the lightness of Moodysson’s touch is not entirely inappropriate. The conventionality of the major storylines—wife-beater wants wife and kids back, changes into a better man—frees us to savor the finer details of style and performance. Production designer Carl Johan De Geer turns in a stellar job of recreating a middle ‘70s milieu, right down to the burnished reds and browns that proliferate across the film. (Also on the subject of style: the frequent use of the fast zoom, while true to mid-‘70s film practice, quickly wears out its welcome.)
As well, Moodysson is to be commended for his deft touch with actors, especially the children, who are rewarded with the best written parts and funniest dialogue. (“Say you like Pinochet! Say it!” is the cry of the youthful victor in a game of tag.) In dramatic contrast to their infantile superiors, the kids adapt to life’s mysteries sanely and with dignity, even as all sorts of humiliations—momentary abandonment, a stifling lack of privacy, even sexual advances—are routinely visited upon them by the adults. The child actors are expertly cast, too; Emma Samuelsson, in particular, is note-perfect as Elisabeth’s pre-adolescent daughter Eva, who is initially mortified by the “ugly clothes and bad music” she encounters at the Together co-op.
Moodysson should further be saluted for not merely demonizing his creations; it’s always refreshing to find cinematic versions of the old New Left that doesn’t reduce its exponents to snarling bomb-throwers, cannon fodder for a Schwarzenegger or Eastwood. Still, the facileness of, for example, Anna’s brand of socialist feminism is disappointing. As the aforementioned armpit example makes clear, her approach to self-actualization is largely cosmetic. Elisabeth fares even worse; the ostensibly radical viewpoints that she stakes claims upon and tries to live up to are reduced to absurdity when she suddenly appears ready to take back her reformed hubby—as if feminists only really need good men to set them straight.
This lack of commitment speaks to the central problem with Together. Judging by their very presence in the collective, these characters strive to live their lives according to hard-earned political ideals. Rarely, however, does one sense passion from them concerning any sort of social issue; neither do they seem capable of particularly deep thought. They bemusedly accept their outcast roles, content to sit on the sidelines of history, even willing to compromise the principles that formerly animated their existences. They let the world change them. The Jonah gang of eight, consumed by a still smoldering desire to cast off the customs of “enslavement, constraint and coercion” (to cite the Rousseau quotation that begins their story), would eat these guys for lunch—if they ate meat.
The Together group members are, in the end, not terribly committed to anything. This might be Moodysson’s point, of course, and it’s a perfectly legitimate (though hardly groundbreaking) observation. Yet it’s difficult to gauge whether Moodysson sees the commune’s living experiment as grist for sitcom-style machinations because he sees his characters and their beliefs as jokes, or simply because he is most earnestly engaged with the minutiae of communal existence, including the inevitable petty bickering (over who does the dishes, over whether Pippi Longstocking is a bourgeois materialist) that rises when headstrong people are forced to endure the idiosyncrasies of others in close quarters. By keeping politics at a remove, the movie makes it hard for us to understand what keeps the characters together. But the special strength of Moodysson’s focus on what threatens to drive the characters apart—the nihilist gestures, the navel-gazing, the selfish mind games they inflict upon each other—is that it acknowledges and illuminates the sapping of the New Left’s vitality at the dawn of the ‘70s. Faced with their extinction as a political force, the radicals turned on each other and blew up their souls instead of their governments.
Thus, Together‘s “happy ending,” when the tenants reaffirm their solidarity with a vigorous game of soccer in the snow, might be appreciated as double-edged, a stalling tactic by the commune dwellers on the road to their eventual co-optation by mainstream society, and consequently the defeat of the radically democratic spirit that infused the ‘60s liberation movements. It’s worth noting that the seemingly all-embracing people’s utopia of the soccer match is formed at the expense of some of the commune’s most radical members: Erik (who storms out to join up with the doomed Baader-Meinhoff gang), Lena (whose open, aggressive sexuality marks her as a little too dangerous), and a married couple who object to the introduction of a tiny black-and-white TV into the communal living space. More problematically, the implied, cloying reconciliation of Elisabeth and her abusive husband in the final shot is a disheartening moment that mocks the inner strength she’s spent the entire film repairing. In terms of tone (if not political astuteness), the conclusion makes sense, but frankly, Together should have been a good deal more than a frothy comedy of remarriage.