[14 May 2009]
The classic period of film noir (‘40s and ‘50s) has a staying power that is in part the result of its initial lack of self-awareness. Few directors at the time identified their works (which gained meaning through critical reception) as belonging to an interrelated group of films, even if their cinematic, cultural and literary influences might have been the same. The style of archetypal noir remains substantive not only because of rich visual and narrative techniques, but also because of the large and expanding network of films it appears to have influenced.
As the big tent of noir offshoots continues to grow, there are occasionally films that work against the original absence of awareness and consciously self-identify as noir. This is a risk that pays off successfully when the filmmaker declares the original style as being necessary to, and motivated by, the story at hand. It works less successfully when the style is used only to mask a scarcity of substance.
Ole Bornedal’s Just Another Love Story has a lot of fun with the inheritance of classic film noir but also – crucially—respects its complex and still not exhaustively plumbed psychological and emotional aspects. Knowingly offering up a dying man’s voiceover and a woman in trouble in its opening minutes, the film teases the audience with ironic “love scenes” that set up the main characters’ crises.
Jonas (Anders W. Berthelsen) is a family man and crime scene photographer. Julia (Rebecka Hemse) is a young woman from a wealthy family whose rebellion has taken a turn for the dangerous and possibly deadly. These originally unconnected characters work as noir types because they are both caught between worlds, and much of the film’s energy comes from the progressive disclosure of the competing forces in their lives.
Jonas has a job that causes him to confront death on a daily basis, and at first his domestic role seems like the ideal escape from grim reality. Julia is fleeing what looks like a dire criminal situation, and though we know little about her at the beginning of the film, she appears to be returning towards the sanctuary of home and family. In a more romantic film, these parallel retreats might be the stuff of conclusion and resolution. But here they form Bornedal’s first act, and so the audience anticipates the moment when these two dramatic situations will collide and begin to crumble.
The ensuing collision—literally, in a spectacularly foreshadowed and fulfilled car crash—is the beginning of a complicated relationship between Jonas and Julia that positions him as her rescuer, much like Betty to Rita in David Lynch’s neo-noir masterwork Mulholland Drive. The Jonas/Julia relationship allows Jonas to explore a fantasy by assuming the role of her boyfriend and connecting with her wild, mysterious reality.
Both characters have a chance to reset their lives—she by force, he by choice—but their imprudence catches up with them as it almost always does in film noir. To give away much more than that would unnecessarily spoil the plot, though I’ll note that the Mulholland Drive comparison holds up with regard to another major plot point concerning Julia, as well as the script’s overall exploration of role playing.
Visually, Just Another Love Story is confidently presented, though a bit all over the place. There are some psychedelic touches that connect to Julia’s back-story and state of mind, some horror framing in the hospital sequences, scenes that evoke drab middle-class malaise, and of course direct noir homages. The tonal shifts of the film are mostly successful, though occasionally the elliptical editing overwhelms a more calculated pace.
The largest problem with the film is how it tapers in excitement after the midpoint. Jonas continues to be an interesting protagonist, and the audience wonders exactly how much he will sacrifice for Julia. However Julia, who makes such a strong impact earlier in the film as the woman in trouble, gets lost in the problematic third act. It is not that Hemse’s performance is somehow lacking later in the film. Rather, the introduction of a character from her past sidetracks the present-tense action. The film suddenly loses its grip on her character to instead focus on the showdown between the two men obsessed with her.
An additional role-playing scenario between Jonas and the visitor is somewhat compelling for the way it extends the film’s interest in changeable identities. However, the presentation of the expository information and the staging of the revelations deaden the momentum of the plot. After cycling through family drama, suspense/thriller, and “locked past” mystery genres, the movie returns to noir for its big vengeance-heavy finish. The conclusion is less clever than it thinks, but to not include such a bookend would be formally inconsistent.
Overall, the visual and emotional worlds of Just Another Love Story are top-notch, even if the plot is ultimately less than satisfying. Much like revivalist Dominik Moll, Bornedal manages to create arresting surprises from classic conventions.