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At the Movies

Costs of love


The most entertaining and often insightful movie of recent months is Together, a Swedish import about a 1970s hippie household that is as loopy as it is good-natured. It opens with a bang, the radio announcing that Franco has just died, which produces loud cheers and an orgy of good-natured hugging. In the beginning you wonder if you’ll be able to sort out all the characters living in the commune -- whose name is the Swedish equivalent of the movie’s title -- but director Lukas Moodysson quickly establishes who all these people are and what is bugging them.

The mostly middle-class group already feels crowded when Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren), sister of its nondirective leader Göran (Gustav Hammarsten), asks for refuge after abandoning her hard-drinking husband Rolf (Michael Nyqvist), who has struck her once too often. She and her two children are startled by a semi-insane argument going on within the group that leads to displays of nudity, and the 13-year-old daughter, Eva (Emma Samuelsson), hastens for solace to the hippie station wagon outside where she can listen to pop music on her portable tape deck. Her younger brother, Stefan (Sam Kessel), soon gets lonely and goes to visit his father, but the latter is so preoccupied with sweeping up the bottles of his last binge that he doesn’t get to the door before his son has given up.

Avoiding moralism, “Together” makes the commune’s idea of open-ended sexual relations mostly ridiculous. When his girlfriend Lena (Anja Lundqvist) develops a crush on Erik (Olle Sarri), true believer in the Communist-Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary League, gentle Göran tries to convince himself he doesn’t really mind. The sequel is farcical, since Erik is at first resistant and will only agree to bed Lena if she promises to discuss the evils of capitalism afterwards. Even the smiling, ever-active lesbian Anna (Jessica Liedberg) is seen as wacky rather than dangerous, perhaps because of her repetitious opening advance: “Have you ever tried meditating?”

“Together” is hardly a document of the Vatican Commission of Family Relations, but its presentation of the growing-up pains of Elisabeth’s children and the son of the judgmental middle-class family that spies on the commune certainly encourages a responsible view of love. In fact, the children’s independence and resiliency help create the movie’s basically upbeat tone. Their complaints about food prompt one of its comic highpoints when Göran is led to explain how oatmeal is the allegorical equivalent of a commune -- the dry, separate flakes cook into warm, cozy unity. The children’s innocent pursuit of fun leads to the group’s reluctant acceptance of toy pistols and TV, and the children even stage a successful protest around the kitchen table with banners proclaiming “We Want Meat.”

A spontaneous soccer game in the snow provides a delightfully appropriate ending in which the commune finally suggests a semblance of community, even enticing the uptight wife next door to find out why her son is spending all his time away from home. It may, after all, not be too late for all these zany “radicals” to grow up and accept the costs of love.

Innocence, the new Australian film written and directed by Paul Cox, also deals with love and growing up, but in a radically different tone. A story of two people who were in love as teenagers in Belgium just after World War II and discover that their passion is still alive 50 years later, it largely avoids the sentimentality that usually overwhelms such material, and refuses to impose a simplistic solution to an intractable situation.

Andreas (Charles Tingwell) is a retired organist and music teacher whose wife has died some years before he discovers that his first love lives nearby. He writes a letter to Claire (Julia Blake), married for 40 years to dull, routine-ridden John (Terry Norris), who has come to take his wife for granted. After a brief first encounter, the pair meet again at the cemetery where bodies -- including that of Andreas’ wife -- are being dug up and prepared to be placed elsewhere. In the face of this reminder of mortality, they realize that their feelings for each other are as strong as ever.

Although “Innocence” isn’t preaching the irrelevance of marriage vows, it is certainly a call to live life to the fullest regardless of age. When Claire, a woman who has aged luminously, proclaims she is too old to lie and walks out on her husband, the audience’s emotional sympathies are with her. Meanwhile, Andreas’ daughter seems delighted to meet Claire, but when the latter’s son tries to soften his father’s resentment of his wife, John blurts out, “You two have always ganged up on me.”

The course of true love is further complicated by health problems: Andreas suddenly has to go to the hospital for a check-up, where he discovers that he has an advanced cancer and debates the meaning of beauty and love with a tolerant priest chaplain. Meanwhile John earns some humorous sympathy by trying to overcome his earlier indignation; he even tries to cook dinner for his wife, and shamefacedly concedes that he hasn’t told her he loved her for 30 years. There is no “solution” to Claire’s situation, but many women will find it easy to identify with her when she goes to Andreas’ house and asks him to keep her there.

The dramatic conclusion comes when Andreas takes Claire to a church for which he has the keys and plays organ music with intimations of transcendent longing. “Innocence” offers no formula answer to the questions it raises but makes us feel that all the characters have grown because of the crisis they have been forced to deal with.

Despite its gentle pace and thoughtful manner, however, “Innocence” has its limitations, especially since it is aiming at something deeper than soap opera. We never learn what Andreas and Claire were doing in Belgium, or how they lost contact: Instead, we get too many flashbacks to idealized, ardent sexuality against repeated images of a water wheel and a railroad station.

It’s not hard to look on such teenage passion as innocent, but don’t we need a scene in which they do something besides make love -- perhaps speak of their hopes for the future, and in Andreas’ case, give a hint of his later disillusion with conventional religion? Though Cox has gotten outstanding performances from his three principals --Julia Blake is especially memorable; in real life, ironically, she is Terry Norris’ wife -- “Innocence” seems to have missing pieces. Its affirmation of love as stronger than death will nevertheless haunt many viewers long after the film is over.

Joseph Cunneen, NCR’s regular movie reviewer, is working on a book about French director Robert Bresson.

National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2001