The improbable missing link between Marx and ABBA, Lukas Moodysson’s Together ventures into the vanishing utopia of a Swedish commune in the mid ’70s, spoofing hippie fads and zealotries even as it fondly memorializes the era’s fundamental idealism. Moodysson, who was born in 1969 and has no firsthand experience of commune life, says the film was never intended as a nostalgia trip. “I was passionate about all the details—the music, the clothes, the posters, the beards—but I wanted it to be completely realistic, not at all over-the-top or ironic. There’s something about the ’70s that’s automatically funny, and I even considered setting it in the present to avoid that.”
Indeed, Together‘s wholehearted embrace of goofball alternative-family scenarios makes it a topical film, even a radical one. Or as Moodysson puts it: “It’s about what happens when people crash into one another. It’s about how to live together, which I think makes it a political film in these egotistical times.” How exactly you interpret its politics is another matter. “It got a great review in the Proletaren [the Swedish Communist Party’s weekly newspaper]. They wanted to interview me, but I refused. I mean, these are people who think Stalin maybe made a few mistakes but was on the whole a great guy, and I don’t sympathize with that.” On the other hand, Together has also been denounced (and, to a lesser extent, praised) as a petit bourgeois apologia. “Some people say the film shows that if you have TV and if you eat meat, then your life gets better,” says Moodysson. “It’s been liked and hated for many reasons, but to me it’s obvious: This is a film that has a lot of love and sympathy for the left wing. Yes, it’s critical, but on a personal level, I was trying to find out how I really felt about the left in Sweden.” The after-effects have been more extensive than he’d predicted. “I know people who started communes after seeing the film. I don’t know how it’s worked out.”
Together shares the infectious generosity of Moodysson’s first film, Fucking Amal, a comedy that nailed the frustrations of pubescent boredom and good-naturedly proposed a way out for its teenage protagonists. (The movie is named for the girls’ stifling hometown, but distributors had their doubts—”Some people thought it was Turkish gay porn”—and it was blandly retitled Show Me Love for international release.) Moodysson says he firmly believes that the most valuable art is optimistic—a philosophy that he concedes probably has a lot to do with fatherhood (his eldest son is five). “I matured a lot. It’s very difficult as a parent to be constantly sad and worried. . . . People are very much aware that it’s a difficult world. We don’t need films that tell us life is a tragedy. We need films that tell us life is very difficult but possible. There’s a misunderstanding that serious art needs to be dark. This pessimism in contemporary art is very much a luxury problem of the Western world.” He pauses to reconsider. “Well, I’m not so sure, but I think about it a lot. I try to figure it out.” Humanist moviemaking that gets a thumbs-up ranges from Steel Magnolias to Kiarostami’s work. But he adds, “I also like Harmony Korine, who makes films without any hope at all.”
A good deal more solemn than you’d expect from his work, Moodysson was a published poet by the time he was 18 but says he found the endeavor isolating and narcissistic. “An important revelation for me was that it’s not necessary to write specifically about yourself.” Though he was never much of a movie buff (“I mostly just liked films with visual impact: Alien, Blade Runner, Tarkovsky, MTV”), he applied to film school. “I started out just wanting to do anything else and it turned into a big passion.”
Moodysson now lives in Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, near the small town where he grew up. “Malmö’s known to be a cool place, both in the positive and negative sense. People don’t care so much. They aren’t easily impressed, not like in Stockholm.” Moodysson’s somewhat antagonistic relationship with the Swedish film industry is no secret—an acceptance speech for Fucking Amal at the Swedish Oscars a couple of years ago turned into a live-TV debacle and minor national scandal. “I’m very sensitive to hypocrisy, and there was so much of it that night. It made me want to throw up, and so I just did. I was actually inspired a bit by what Marlon Brando did when he won his Oscar. If you have the opportunity to talk to a large part of the Swedish population, you should not start crying and say I’m so happy. So I gave this speech about how you shouldn’t eat meat, how the film industry doesn’t belong in this very glamorous setting, at the royal opera house. The audience started booing, and I showed them the finger. The viewers at home didn’t hear the booing, so they thought I was showing the finger to all Swedish people.” He adds, sheepishly: “It was a bit childish. People hated me; they thought I was really ungrateful.”
Moodysson remains vague when questioned about future projects (he’s already completed the script for his third feature), but he does mention a longstanding interest in a movie project about a painter friend. He quickly clarifies: “A real painter—he paints walls, goes into people’s homes. I would never make a film about the other kind of painter.” Moodysson says he has no plans to follow in the path of his countryman and Miramax’s favorite piece of Oscar bait, Lasse Hallström, “for three reasons: I would like to make better films. I would like to have more control over my films. And I don’t want to live in America.” He says he’s at once attracted to and repulsed by America (he keeps mentioning George W. Bush and Julia Roberts) and would like eventually to make a movie “about this imperialistic culture. I haven’t spent much time here, but I’m a fast learner.” Moodysson, it turns out, has a master plan, and he maps it out with amusing precision: “I’d like to make one or two more films in Sweden, and one documentary, and one soap, and one or two English-language films, not necessarily in that order, and then I will retire.”
Click here to read J. Hoberman’s review of Together.