Swedish schoolgirls who fall in love with each other are unlikely heroines for a mainstream, feel-good blockbuster. But Show Me Love was No. 2 at box offices all across Scandinavia last year, just behind that other teenage saga, Titanic. How does filmmaker Lukas Moodysson explain the phenomenon?
“In Sweden, it wasn’t labeled as a gay film,” the 30-year-old director says of his first feature. “And then it’s a very Swedish movie. Everyone speaks in dialect. And even people who were quite homophobic liked it, because it reminded them of being 15 and having nothing to do, getting drunk and throwing up in toilets, going to stupid parties and having sex with someone you didn’t like. People thought it was about small-town life.”
Show Me Love is fresh and sharp, filled with youthful charm and desperation. Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg) is a loner at her new school, where the girls are horrid and the boys are worse. Live-wire Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) is popular, but bored to death by provincial existence. Their schoolgirl crush finally vanquishes the forces of ennui and convention. Moodysson himself grew up in a small town outside of Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, where he now lives with his wife and two children. He dropped out of school and wrote his first book of poems at age 17, followed by several other collections and a novel.
Filmmaking, he says, was practically a last resort. “I was writing and working as a waiter,” he explains, “and I wanted to change my whole life. So I applied for three different educations—to finish high school, with the intention of becoming a lawyer, to a culinary institute, and to film school. Luckily, only the film school would take me.” He graduated from Stockholm’s Dramatiska Institutet and made one short film before this surprise success.
Does Bergman’s shadow loom large over fledgling Swedish directors? “Right now, my own legacy hangs rather heavily over me,” Moodysson says. “Otherwise, my work is closer to the tradition of another Swedish director, Bo Widerberg. He began a Swedish New Wave in the ’60s, with films that were less theatrical and intellectual, and closer to real life.” (Widerberg is the subject of a 10-film retrospective at the BAM Rose Cinema from November 2 through 12.)
For Moodysson, his film’s final uplift is a moral imperative. “These days, art is so focused on provocation and a dystopian perspective,” he explains. “Perhaps it’s a counterreaction to the fact that popular culture is so unrealistically utopian. But I think that’s the wrong approach.
“I try to have happy endings all the time, but it’s difficult,” he continues. “Writing a script is a bit like an experiment in turning something bad into something good. You start off with a situation—a girl in love with another girl who doesn’t love her back—and see if there’s some way it can work out. A deus ex machina is not enough. You have to make it work the whole way through. I think that’s the human experiment as well. It’s very difficult to live in this world, but you have to make it work.”