Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them
“I’m a man on the move,” says Sir Les Patterson at the start of his book The Traveller’s Tool: “I wouldn’t have had two shits in the same toilet.” I can’t say that I get about as much as the Australian Cultural Attache, but from the path I’ve taken in previous Monoglot Movie Club articles – the Netherlands, Brazil, UAE, Japan, Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Finland – you might have got the impression that I get to visit a country once and once only, before they chase me out of town and bar me from ever entering it again.
Happily, that’s not the case. To prove it, I went back to Sweden last month, in a return visit that had much warmer weather than my previous one in January (see illustration above). Back then, there was a sudden upsurge in interest in Swedish cinema, thanks to the Guldbagge film awards being announced: lots of local movies in theatres, many of them selling out. In the summer months, the Swedes appear to be watching all the same summer blockbusters as the rest of the world, but I still managed to catch a couple of bits of local product for your entertainment and my bewilderment.
I try to avoid lazy cultural stereotyping as much as I can in these pieces, but you’ll have to indulge me here for a paragraph or so, as I try to come up with an allegorical framework to describe the first film. So: think of Mamma Mia! Got that? Now imagine what it would be like if it wasn’t built around the songs of Abba, but of a Swedish popstar that you’d never heard of. And now imagine what it would be like if it was written by a Swede as well, and wasn’t afraid to plumb Bergmanesque levels of despair in its plotting.
What you’re thinking of is Känn Ingen Sorg, international title Shed No Tears. It’s a jukebox musical whose inspiration is the work of Håkan Hellström. It tells the story of three friends, Pål (Adam Lundgren), Lena (Josefin Neldén) and Johnny (Jonathan Andersson). We first see them as children performing together at a church concert, or at least trying to: Pål has an attack of stage fright so powerful he can only moon the audience from the altar. In their twenties, things haven’t changed all that much – Pål loves to write music, but hasn’t got the bottle to let other people hear it.
That all changes when Pål and Johnny meet singer Eva (Disa Östrand), first heard butchering Billy Bragg’s A New England in a bar. Eva initially starts going out with Johnny, but ultimately takes a shine to Pål, and gradually gives him the confidence to start performing in public, even if he has to be blindfolded while he does it. What she doesn’t realise is the damage she’s causing to the relationship of the three childhood friends. Johnny channels his resentment at losing Eva into drug dealing, while Lena channels her unrequited love for Pål into cage fighting. (Disclaimer: the correlation between these events may not be quite as direct as I’ve interpreted it.)
With no obvious connection to Hellström apart from the frequent use of his songs – not to mention a cameo that’s so blatantly shoehorned in that even I could tell it was him – Känn Ingen Sorg has a very peculiar tone for those of us who don’t know his music. It starts out all light and frothy, but gradually gets darker. Things that would normally be considered comic setpieces, like Pål losing his inhibitions at a Brazilian gig and accidentally starting a fire, end up with people getting seriously hurt. Considering the childhood antics that start the movie, it’s surprising when we hit the scene about three-quarters through involving cocaine, vomit, a train toilet and a rolled-up sleeve. Presumably the intention here is that the songs will hold all these elements together: but if you don’t know the songs, they don’t.
That’s not to say I was bored, though. Directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein (who come to this off the back of their Hollywood debut, having made the last Underworld movie) have visual style to burn, even though at times it seems too much for this plot to bear. Highlights include a huge chase sequence shot in a single take (about one third of it can be seen on YouTube), and the CGI-enhanced symbolic weight given to the Gothenburg bridge, which Pål sees as his escape route to a new life. The leads are enjoyable to watch, and the songs are actually pretty good. So it’s a very watchable film overall, even though I’m obviously not part of its target audience.
But that’s what Monoglot Movie Club is often about – seeing films without the baggage that the home audience would normally be expected to bring with them. So if seeing a jukebox musical without knowing the songs in advance is already daft, how about watching the final part of a crime trilogy without seeing the first two films? Especially when I’ve had plenty of opportunity to do so in the past. At last year’s London Film Festival, I missed out on seeing the first two movies in the Snabba Cash series, presented in a blatant attempt at surfing the Nordic Noir wave that’s sweeping the UK. The first one recently had a proper cinema release over here in the UK as Easy Money, using the shameless poster tagline STARRING JOEL KINNAMAN OF THE KILLING without making it clear they were talking about the US series.
And now we have Snabba Cash: Livet Deluxe, being sold as the third and final film to be adapted from Jens Lapidus’ bestselling novels. (Fab fact: the title of the second novel was Aldrig Fucka Upp.) Those of us who don’t know what’s come before have to rely on a 90-second series of high speed Swedish captions introducing the four main characters and where they were at the end of the second film, which admittedly isn’t ideal for me. Still, at least we know the key personnel at the end of that. Jorge (Matias Varela) is a crook who’s been given some sort of protection deal by the police, working in a care home alongside former associate Nadja (Madeleine Martin). Radovan (Dejan Cukic) is a Serbian crime boss who was presumably involved in their previous career, while JW (Joel Kinnaman) is another former associate who’s obsessed with tracking down his missing sister.
The basic motor of the plot of Livet Deluxe is a timeless one: Jorge is out of the game, but is lured back by the prospect of One Last Job so that he and Nadja can escape the criminal life for good. But, inevitably, it’s not that simple. The addition of two new characters into the mix – Radovan’s daughter Natalie (Malin Buska) and his new minder Martin (Martin Wallström) – turn out to be the key to a bewildering web of double- and triple-crosses conducted in at least four languages.
Unfamiliarity with the basic setup is a problem, sure, but the main issue I had with Livet Deluxe was its peculiar pacing. The comparisons with the Nordic Noir TV shows don’t really hold up – this is much more of a traditional Baddies vs Even Worsies crime caper, as you can tell from the synopsis – but the structure owes a lot to those extended television narratives. In particular, there are story threads that are set up and then not referred to again for at least an hour – which is fine when you’ve got several stories on the boil, less so when you only really have three. JW’s character comes off the worst from this approach: it came as a genuine surprise to discover that he was effectively the lead in the first film, because he’s reduced to a cameo in the third.
The accusations of telly in cinema clothes apply to the look of the film, as well. The setpiece heist at the centre of the film is shot by director Jens Jonsson in a single Steadicam take. It’s not fast-paced enough to generate real excitement: it’s not complex enough to make you marvel at the technical skill behind it (unlike, say, that chase in Känn Ingen Sorg): it doesn’t appear to have any message behind it other that Look, I’ve Got A Steadicam. There’s a lot of that in Livet Deluxe, and it makes it a frustrating two-and-a-bit hours to watch: you suspect that somewhere in there, there’s a taut 90 minute crime drama just waiting to get out. There’s something vaguely unsatisfying about what we have at this level of viewing, although I’ll be the first to admit it isn’t an ideal one.
Not a very positive view of Swedish cinema overall, is it? I just hope they let me back into the country next time.
Spank The Monkey is already defiling the toilets of another country as you read this.