Thursday, August 23, 2007

I had quite a normal childhood.

Roger Ebert has frequently stated that he rates films according to how well the filmmakers succeed at what they were aiming for. By Ebert's logic, Lukas Moodysson's A Hole in My Heart is a smashing success. Moodysson has stated in interviews that he intended his film to be off-putting to audiences, and it's certainly quite repugnant. It's unfortunate for us, however, that Moodysson didn't aim higher, because while A Hole in My Heart is composed almost entirely of images sure to ruin one's appetite, it's never truly disturbing, shocking or even particularly interesting. It's a pointlessly gross and stupid film that tries to say something insightful about porn, television and spiritual decay but, to paraphrase This is Spinal Tap, only treads in a sea of retarded sexuality.

In a cramped apartment, Rickard (Thorsten Flinck) and Geko (Goran Marjanovic) are busy making an amateurish porn starring Geko and Tess (Sanna Brading), a dim-witted young woman with aspirations of starring on Big Brother. The three descend into increasingly grotesque, extreme scenarios while Rickard's teenage son Eric (Bjorn Almroth) sulks in his bedroom with his pet worms and grating industrial music. And that's pretty much it - for 100 or so minutes, Richard and Geko (and Moodysson) do countless degrading things to Tess, who flees at one point only to return bearing junk food for further degradation. I'm not at all against extreme content in cinema; in fact, I'm always excited to discover filmmakers who are willing to examine uncomfortable or grotesque material with a seriousness and purpose, and I appreciate it when a filmmaker doesn't feel the need to block our eyes as if we were children. But A Hole in My Heart is a film composed entirely of extremes, edited in a series of epileptic jump cuts punctuated by screeching noise, that becomes wearyingly monotonous within minutes. I'm currently writing a screenplay set in and around a strip club, and I was at first confused by my instinct to include several moments of the characters performing mundane, everyday tasks (sleeping, watching tv, etc.). As the script has progressed, it's clearer to me that, if my film is to work at all, it needs the contrast between the characters' manufactured sexual personae and their unobserved selves. There's no such contrast in A Hole in My Heart, and in the absence of any genuine attempt at emotional authenticity, the characters are merely vehicles for Moodysson's skeezy, hyperbolic moralism.

The most pathetic thing about A Hole in My Heart is its complete failure even to shock us. It's disgusting in a way that comes off as cheating - it's easy to cut to, say, a close-up of vaginal reconstructive surgery without warning or context and get a reaction from the audience. It's harder to give such images real power or consequence. Directors like Todd Solondz, David Lynch and Michael Haneke give us films infinitely more disturbing than A Hole in My Heart with only a fraction of the overtly shocking imagery. They have the insight and craft to disturb us with the implications of their images - it's the ideas in Happiness or Blue Velvet that make those films so unsettling, not just the quantity of nipples or viscera on display. The irony of Moodysson's use of the confessional style of reality TV is that, while it's meant as a comment on the emptiness of popular culture, his film has even less to say (at least Big Brother is sometimes inadvertently insightful). I really wanted to "get" A Hole in My Heart, to have the geek show I'd endured arrive at the apocalyptic moment of truth it had promised. But by the time the film arrived at the image of a character vomiting into another's mouth with Bach's St. Matthew Passion blaring on the soundtrack, I could only laugh with rage at the purest marriage of pretension and idiocy I've ever seen.

A few days before seeing A Hole in My Heart, I watched Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day. It was the first of her films I'd seen, and while I didn't like it, it was made with an assuredness of tone and style that made me want to check out more of her work. I never, ever want to see another Lukas Moodysson film. I don't care if Together and Fucking Amal are cute, or that Lilja 4-ever was on a bunch of top-10 lists. I think Lukas Moodysson is an ass. I think he hates movies and everything else I hold dear. The fact that he's both a Socialist and a Christian isn't an interesting idiosyncracy, it just helps explain how a film could be so demoralizing and preachy at the same time. A Hole in My Heart is the work of a complete fraud; to arrive after 100 minutes of nihilistic ugliness at a group hug is a sick, insulting joke, and while the film has mostly been panned, it's geniunely baffling to read Reverse Shot's Eric Hynes praise it as "achingly humane." According to the film's IMDb trivia page, Thorsten Flinck had to turn to drugs to make it through the film's more harrowing scenes. I only wish I'd had as much foresight.


Anonymous said...

Jesus, that looks insane and that positive review didn't even make much sense. The website people too on there, seem rather picky regarding Herzog and Brokeback mountain and what not

Dr. Insermini said...

I don't agree. I Love Lukas Moodysson. Especially Fucking Amal, Together and Lilya4ever

This one was his first american project. He wanted Christina Aguilera and Sylvester Stallone for the main roles.

Paul C. said...

I dunno, I liked Together and Show Me Love a lot. But you're right, this is a pretty unpleasant movie. I'm actually more positive about it then you, once I basically interpreted what Moodysson was going for as REAL WORLD: PORN SET. I think it actually kind of works as an indictment of the in-your-face shock tactics used by reality shows. Unfortunately, you can't really criticize these tactics without showing them, and in doing so the movie becomes extremely alienating.

Also, I think you may have started off on the wrong foot with Denis. Her work has gotten more impenetrable as her career has progressed, with the exception of 2002's Friday Night, which may have been a better starting-off point for you (and one you could watch with the wife). You might also try her debut feature Chocolat and 1996's Nenette et Boni.

Steve C. said...

Sorry, man, but having seen this -- twice -- I'm gonna hafta disagree with you on this one. It's unpleasant, but not without purpose.

For one thing, the vaginal reconstruction insert is contextualized -- it's first tossed at us as Tess is explaining how she went through that exact process to make her vagina more in line with what people expect to see in porn films. Could the point about the gulf between what's perceived as beautiful and what often has to be done to achieve such ridiculous standards been made with words alone or with a less grotesque example? Probably, but the impact would not be the same.

Furthermore, it's interesting you cite Haneke as a guy who can do this sort of thing correctly, since from where I stand this is to porno what Funny Games is to the home-invasion thriller: Its entire aim is to make you, the audience, ask yourself why you participate in the consumption of such images. (Of COURSE it trades in retarded sexuality by necessity -- the sex in porn flicks bears as much bearing on real male-female relationships as The Green Berets did to the Vietnam conflict.) As such, it has to assume the guise of a porn film to an extent, but therein lies the purpose of the jump cuts, spatial disorientation and blasts of white noise Moodysson employs: Applying these confrontational devices takes any potential eroticism out of the sexual content while also providing a buffer for those who would claiming that Lukas is merely getting off on/wallowing in that which he despises. The participants/creators of the porn film-within-the-film are degrading themselves by making it, and the audience degrades themselves by watching it. (Moodysson's not letting himself off the hook, either -- thus the myriad "doll" inserts. He's feeding the beast too.)

Yet, despite this degradation, it's still kept clear that these are people at the bottom of life and hope. That, to me, is the point of the B&W interview segments -- it keys us into the sadness, loneliness, anger and despair that drives these people. It's also why the film ends as it does, showing us that at least a couple participants have managed to retain a bit of gentleness and humanity.

I dunno, there's just a deep anger and sadness at the core of this film to which I responded. I can understand why most people wouldn't be down with this, but still.

Lilya 4-Ever, however, is terrible, intellectually dishonest exploitation and I don't care what anyone says. (You really shouldn't deny yourself Fucking Amal though -- it's the polar opposite of A Hole in My Heart.)

Andrew Bemis said...

I don't think it's a matter of interpretation - the comparison between porn and reality is blatantly stated within minutes and never progresses. I agree with you both about Moodysson's intentions, but beyond making that initial comparison, he never really does anything interesting or insightful.

Also, the comparison doesn't work for me because most of what we see in the film barely resembles any real porn, either aesthetically or content-wise. Moodysson doesn't just recreate the porn/reality aesthetic, he exaggerates it to ridiculous lengths. By depicting the fringes of the sex industry, he misses the opportunity to comment on the commodification of sexuality. Yes, one could argue that these characters are at the fringes of this world, but once one takes such a stubbornly postmodern stance as to define the individual as the byproduct of a junk culture, than one can justify pretty much anything. And that's not interesting to me, as a filmmaker or as an audience member.

This is also what sets Haneke apart from Moodysson - in Funny Games, The Piano Teacher and particularly Cache (a film I have some issues with but still respect), he never lets the subtext obscure the personal responsibility his characters have in their fates. That, and Haneke is a talented filmmaker; consider the moment of violence at the end of The Piano Teacher, which isn't particularly graphic but is genuinely, emotionally devastating, largely because Haneke knows how to compose his images and set up such a moment. When I say the labia surgery in A Hole in My Heart lacks context, I mean that when Moodysson cuts to it repeatedly without warning, he's just using a cheap trick. I was reminded of pro-lifers waving placards depicting bloodied, aborted fetuses. There's no art to it, and while I'm glad the film worked for someone, to me it was just shit.

That said, I guess I'll give Together a try. But I remain deeply suspicious.


i wouldn't write off Moodyson just yet. Hole in my Heart is actually the only film of his that i haven't seen but i thought the others were top notch (Together being my favorite)

as for Claire Denis, Trouble Every Day is difficult but Beau Travail is like ecstacy. Give that one a play.

Steve C. said...

See, I think the film's argument does evolve, in that it comes to tell us that even though these people's actions and deeds are reprehensible, there's still glimmers of humanity in them. They're not, at bottom, irredeemable.

Also, I see and understand your comment re: "fringe" porn in relation to real porn. But I think it all depends on where the fringe is these days. I thought that, when Lukas wasn't intentionally blowing up the artifice of it all, the film actually did resemble some of the more homegrown outcroppings of gonzo porn that have slowly started to supplant the clean, well-lit Vivid Video school of filmmaking. Compare an old Ed Powers video, a current Seymore Butts video or any one of the myriad "amateur" sites on the 'Net (Bangbus being an especially representative example) to much of this film, and aside from the lack of penetrative detail, Lukas has the ugly videography, the faux-interview format and the passionless rutting down cold. (This last statement reveals that I know far, far too much about porn.)

When I say the labia surgery in A Hole in My Heart lacks context, I mean that when Moodysson cuts to it repeatedly without warning, he's just using a cheap trick.

And I'd probably agree with you. The reprises of the labial surgery are pretty much just a goose to the audience. Even in defending this film about which I feel pretty passionate, I'll willingly admit it's far from perfect. I still think it ties in pretty well (the ugly flipside of the pursuit of beauty, the commodification of anatomy, the idea that some things should remain unseen), but he does go to that particular image at least once too often.

Andrew Bemis said...

Oh, don't be apologetic. I find real porn fascinating, if not at all sexy. There's a morbid interest when one comes across a dead-eyed wannabe starlet passively allowing herself to be degraded. But more interesting to me is the kind of porn actor or actress who really, truly seems to be enjoying him/herself. It's relatively easy to provide some pop-psych justification (as Moodysson does) for the former, but the latter seems far more complicated.

I'm actually really looking forward to seeing the Denis films recommended here; Trouble Every Day was, to me, a noble failure, an attempt to do something really unique that simply wasn't compelling enough to work as an art film or horror. My distaste for Vincent Gallo may have something to do with this - he's like a living version of one of Robert Zemeckis' dead-eyed mo-cap "actors," but skeezier and with more pretension. Still, it was certainly never a boring experience, so if this is Denis' most difficult movie, I can't wait to see her best work.

Paul C. said...

I wouldn't call Trouble Every Day Denis' most difficult movie. It's almost certainly her most visceral, although the cockfighting in No Fear No Die is hard to take at times. But while Trouble gets better with multiple viewings, at least it's fairly intelligible on the first go-around, which is something you can't say for The Intruder.

Andrew Bemis said...

It's odd, but perhaps the problem I had with Trouble Every Day was that it wasn't visceral enough for me. It was bloody, but without feeling. Honestly, a movie like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 states basically the same thesis with more kick. But I did appreciate it as an attempt at coming at the genre from a different perspective; in retrospect, that D+ was too harsh.