Conor Doak revisits the subversive films of Swedish director Lukas Moodyson Those who imagine Sweden as a delightful, ABBA-singing land of snow, socialism and smorgasbords will perhaps be surprised to learn that it is the home of one of European cinema’s most melancholic directors. Lukas Moodysson is a hard-hitting realist whose socially-engaged films have confronted a wide range of social issues, from teenage angst and alienation to the commodification of sexuality and the body.His work is well-known in Scandinavia, and he has won a handful of European prizes, but the British distaste for foreign language cinema means he is known here only among a small number of faithful devotees.Moodysson’s international break came in 1998 with Show Me Love, a heart-warming coming-out story of a lesbian teenager growing up in a conservative dead-end Swedish town. The two lead actresses, teenage Alexandra Dahlström and Rebechka Liljeberg, handle their roles with a sensitivity and maturity that belie their lack of experience. The film uses delicately drawn characters and brilliantly understated acting to produce some penetrating insights into teenage psychology. The combination of a low-budget set and simple camera techniques works to produce a sense of hyperrealism that has quickly become the trademark of Moodysson’s work. This hyperrealism obviously draws from the Dogme movement in neighbouring Denmark. Like the Dogme directors, Moodysson rejects cinematic gimmicks, special effects, and nail-biting action sequences. Those who enjoyed slow-burning character dramas such as Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners (2000) will love Moodysson. However, at least in these early films, Moodysson distances himself from the more experimental techniques of the movement: don’t expect shaky cameras or grainy video in his work. Together (2000) is a delightfully wacky film that is part uplifting Romantic comedy, part engaging social critique. Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren), a middle-class suburban wife and mother walks away from her husband and failing marriage. Lacking a place to live, she finds herself and her children staying with her brother Göran (Gustav Hammersten), who resides in a hippy commune. It’s the Sweden of the ‘70s, and much of the comedy derives from the tensions between the staid middle-class values of Elisabeth and the muesli-eating, Trotsky-reading, free-loving world in which she finds herself. Although at times nostalgic about the ideas behind communal living, Moodysson is careful not to romanticise the sometimes harsh realities of the lifestyle. The film is particularly successful in exploring the difficulties that arise when trying to turn the idealistic philosophies of the hippy movement into lived realities: one character struggles to reconcile his ideological view of free love with his personal longing for his partner to remain monogamous. These juxtapositions are dealt with subtlety and sensitivity, and Moodysson refrains from any easy judgements about his subjects.His more recent films are more overtly critical of mainstream society. Lilya 4-ever (2002) is a harrowing look at the problem of people-trafficking. In some forgotten corner of Eastern Europe, the teenage Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is abandoned by her parents and forced to live a harsh life on the streets. Despite striking up a close sisterly friendship with the streetwise-but-innocent urchin Volodya (Artyom Bogucharksy), Lilya is enticed to leave her country with the promise of a supposedly better life in the West. On arrival in Sweden, Lilya discovers that she has been the victim of an international scam and is forced to work as a prostitute. The scenes of sexual violence, although not particularly explicit, are distressing and will remain with you for days after watching the film. This is a much tougher, more unrelenting film than his previous two features, and its hard-hitting, didactic message and quasi-documentary style places it more in the tradition of overtly political films – think Ken Loach –than the experimental Dogme movement. Moodysson’s political and religious views now begin to emerge more clearly. In interviews, he claims that the anti-capitalist riots of 2001 in Gothenburg strengthened his resolve to be a political film-maker. He is both a committed leftist and a practising Christian and both of these beliefs clearly inform Lilya 4-ever. The film suggests that there is more humanity and freedom among the street-children living in the abandoned factories than the leafy middle-class suburbs of Malmö. One’s own experiences and political views will likely determine how convincing that seems. Most, however, will probably find the mystical conclusion – where Volodya is transfigured into a Christ figure complete with angel wings – too much to stomach. The problem is not the idea of a Christ figure itself so much as the incongruity of celestial angels suddenly appearing in a film otherwise characterised by stark and brutal realism.Moodysson remains political in his two most recent offerings, but he has veered heavily towards experimental techniques. Undoubtedly, this has disappointed a large part of his traditional audience. Don’t watch Hole in my Heart (2004) with your Mum: it’s a gory, grotesque and plotless examination of the internet porn industry. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a copy of Container (2006) anywhere, a stream-of-consciousness narrative that covers Moodysson’s same themes of alienation, exploitation and social and sexual conformity. Both films have excited the art-house critics immensely, and it’s true that they have moments of brilliance, particularly in their some innovative use of montage and camera technique. However, I found they lacked some of the subtlety of Moodysson’s earlier work with their over-reliance on graphic shock value.It will be interesting to see whether Moodysson returns to a more mainstream style in Mammoth (currently in pre-production for 2009 release). Both his decision to shoot the movie in English, and to cast the popular Gael Garcia Bernal as the lead male, suggest a return to a more accessible format. If Mammoth is executed with the same skill and finesse as his earliest work, this film could open up the British and American market for Moodysson and make him into a household name. Watch this space.