Alex Hewison reviews the critically adored Show Me Love, a brilliant Swedish film about the pain of first love and the frustrations of adolescence. It’s also rigidly unsentimental and bleakly amusing. Released as part of the Lukas Modysson box-set, Metrodome’s DVD is sadly rather unimpressive.
Wryly humorous, humanely insightful and genuinely rather lovely, Show Me Love is a little gem of low-budget European cinema. Upon its release Lukas Modysson’s debut film received about as positive a reaction as any budding filmmaker could hope for; having been enthusiastically greeted by international audiences and critics alike it went on to outperform even Titanic at the box office stakes in its native Sweden. Fellow Swede and auteur Ingmar Bergman even declared it a masterpiece. It’s not hard to see why the film was so acclaimed; Modysson’s preternaturally adroit direction gently guiding the audience through the travails of adolescence whilst the film maintains an expertly balanced perspective on teen angst, small town ennui, petty cruelties and the all-consuming anguish of maybe-requited love.
On paper it could have been another cookie-cutter Hollywood teenybopper flick: unpopular outsider with predilection for sombre poetry falls for popular blonde sexpot, who just can’t make up her mind about what it is that she really wants and causes diffident outcast to feel very upset. Show Me Love, however, bucks the trend by having pair of teenage girls as its star-crossed protagonists and a healthy measure of Scandinavian quirkiness to boot. The resulting film leaves its conformist American counterparts trailing in its exuberantly anarchic wake
Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg), despite having moved to the hamlet of Amal almost two years ago, lacks any friends. Her sense of isolation is compounded by her desperate love for Elin (Alexandra Dahlstrom), the gorgeous bombshell who’s just as dissatisfied with the backwardness of her hometown and the vapidity of her trendy friends as Agnes is with her relentless solitude. Having been cajoled by her mother into having a party Agnes’s fortunes seemingly go from bad to worse. Although Agnes is an aspiring vegetarian her mother insists on serving roast beef, the only person who initially turns up is Agnes’s sometime friend, who’s wheelchair-bound, and a frustrated and unhappy Agnes is quick to berate her choice of present (cheap perfume) and send her retreating back home. Convinced that she’ll forever be a social pariah, Agnes is greatly surprised when Elin and her older sister Jessica arrive on the scene.
The two are, in fact, in transit to a much cooler party and have only stopped off at Agnes’s house in the hope of procuring some alcohol to loosen their inhibitions for later. Whilst the two guzzle down the booze in Agnes’s bedroom (from which they have locked her out) a dare is proposed: since Agnes is a rumoured lesbian, how much would Jessica pay Elin to kiss her? A deal is made and Elin kisses the smitten Agnes, before rushing out in fits of laughter, leaving her quarry in an even greater state of despond. Whilst Elin’s friends jubilantly cackle away at this story, Agnes makes a half-hearted attempt to commit suicide – only to be interrupted by a guilt-ridden Elin, who returns to apologise. The two girls pass most of the night together, unburdening themselves of their thoughts and dreams and discovering a surprising connectivity between their personalities. Crucially, Elin takes the opportunity to kiss Agnes again – though this time for real.
Any seasoned moviegoer can probably imagine what ensues: Elin recoils into denial, taking nice but dim Johan as her new beau, whilst Agnes endures the taunts of her immature and bigoted classmates. What will happen? Who’ll get the girl? No prizes for guessing, but Show Me Love’s narrative isn’t concerned with surprises; it’s not about where the characters get to but how the get there in the first place. Modysson’s direction, which aesthetically exists somewhere between the ideals of the Dogme 95 movement and the notion of cinema verité, has both the gauche energy of a debuting filmmaker but also, paradoxically, the restrained intelligence and understanding of a veteran director. Stylistically, nothing is done in excess; no overweening tracking shots, no embarrassing visual quirks and so on, instead the film possesses a compellingly raw technique that nonetheless maintains a discernibly professional aesthetic.
Modysson doesn’t shy away from presenting the teenagers as multifaceted creatures, all of whom have the capacity for both affection and nastiness. In one of the film’s grimly observant moments Agnes’s spurned friend attempts to insinuate herself into the popular crowd’s interest by recounting how Agnes ‘tried to grope me’. Like the majority of Show Me Love’s more perceptive vignettes the scene is more than a little comic but nonetheless has that horrible overtone of plausibility – especially when the group gape at the girl and mutter ‘is she retarded or something?’. The parents are also treated evenly; Agnes’s father in particular emanates warmth and compassion, explaining to a beleaguered Agnes that things will improve with time (to which Agnes grouchily responds ‘I don’t want to wait twenty five years for that’).
Whilst the film’s first half takes Agnes as its focal point, the latter half centres on Elin. In some respects this is a wise decision; whilst the introspective Agnes has a tendency to internalise her grievances, the garrulous Elin chatters away like there’s no tomorrow. Elin is arguably the more complex figure – Agnes has reached a level of understanding about herself and those around her that Elin has yet to achieve; platitudinous though it sounds, Elin is the one who needs to learn to be herself. The film would have failed utterly had these two actresses not had such an incandescent screen presence, both together and in their individual roles – however for the better part of half the movie the two are kept apart, which doesn’t necessarily damage the film but is something of a mild disappointment (though many of the supporting players, especially Elin’s sister Jessica, deliver naturalistic and entertaining performances).
To label Show Me Love a ‘lesbian film’ would be both rudely dismissive and deeply narrow minded. The film uses homosexuality as a springboard to vocalise its salient proposal: namely that regardless of the pressures imposed by those around us we should revel in our own distinctive personas and not simply adhere to blinkered social conventions, fearing the reprisals that await us should we break free. Modysson’s film, with its nuanced performances and scratchy camerawork, is ultimately a celebration of individualism; an idealistic (bordering on euphoric) challenge to the notion of conformity. For that, if nothing else, it deserves to be celebrated.
Show Me Love is released as part of the Lukas Modysson box-set, which also includes Lilja 4-Ever, Together and A Hole in my Heart. It is not available for seperate purchase.
The picture quality is likely to be something of a bone of contention amongst viewers. Due to the conditions and methods of filming, the image is inherently grainy and of sub-par quality – it strongly resembles a documentary. The 1.85:1 image, unfortunately, is not anamorphically enhanced, though to date there has been no edition anywhere which has rectified this oversight. Of greater concern is that Metrodome’s UK DVD release is of inferior quality to other available versions.
The USA Strand Home Video R0 DVD and the Swedish Sandrew Metrodome R2 DVD are reported to have near identical transfers. As these comparison shots demonstrate, however, the UK Metrodome release is distinctly inferior. The image has a rather nasty orange sheen, the colours look less than natural and the image appears slightly less sharp. The good news is that the UK DVD is progressive and PAL sourced, meaning there’s an absence of either ghosting or combing. I’m inclined to be somewhat generous with my score for the image: this film was never going to look particularly great and the transfer provided here is satisfactory, though not exceptional.
Note: these screen captures aren’t the exact same frame
Metrodome UK DVD R2
Strand Home Video DVD R0 / Sandrew Metrodome DVD R2
Metrodome UK DVD R2
Strand Home Video DVD R0 / Sandrew Metrodome DVD R2
The sound is a little better. The Swedish audio is presented in Stereo and actually sounds rather good. The sound, like the image, is perhaps a little rough round the edges – though again this is a consequence of the style in which the film was shot. The presentation of dialogue is clear – if not a little bland – but the audio is able to impress with its thumping renditions of the film’s numerous Pop/Rock songs. The music soundtrack, which is comprised of a mixture of Swedish rock songs and American Pop, is in itself frequently excellent.
Supposedly there is a Show Me Love trailer included on the disc, though it appeared to be absent from my review copy – a huge loss of course. The only other feature (alleged or otherwise) is Talk, a thirteen or so minute short film by Modysson. It’s a markedly different piece of filmmaking; macabre, blackly comic and even rather unsettling. It concerns an aged man who’s determined to converse with somebody, anybody, and goes to rather unfortunate lengths to do so. It’s presented in the ratio of 4:3 (i.e. full screen) and is of reasonable quality – both in its A/V presentation and its content.
Metrodome’s disc certainly possesses room for improvement: the picture quality is dubious and the extras are meagre in number (the Swedish DVD contains a commentary by Modysson) and after so long a wait it’s all fairly underwhelming. On the positive side, three other films are included in the box-set and Show Me Love is itself a minor classic of energised and impassioned cinema, all fresh with the joy of newfound creativity.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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