Monday, June 18, 2012

Erich Kuersten: Swedish Death, American Style

Swedish Death, American Style
by Erich Kuersten

"A film by Matt Reeves" (Cloverfield), Let Me In (2010) barely even acknowledges it's a remake of a 2008 Swedish film, Let the Right One In (dir. Thomas Alfredson), which was an adaptation of a book by John Ajvide Lindqvist, also from Sweden. The American version keeps the snowy, desolate, alien mood via wintry Los Alamos, New Mexico, with Kodi Smith McPhee as the human boy, and the startling Chloe Grace Moretz as the vampire. One of the changes from the original are scenes were Moretz morphs into the CGI silhouette of a flying pit bull. In quieter moments she's startlingly ageless and we're forced to contend with the idea that she could be five or five hundred; she may have picked her young girl form the way a Venus flytrap picks its sticky sweet scent. In the book, I'm told, she's not even a real girl, but a castrated boy. She could be a thousand year old shapeshifting venus fly cactus. This mystery enhances the bizarre love story at the film's heart. It's one we all know- the old lover making way for the new - but in this case, oh man, we're talking some serious age differences.

Perhaps I mention all this to show how having a Swedish original to work from enables American filmmakers to explore the darker side of childhood, the place where empathy is easily drowned by the desire for companionship, safety, validation, power, and revenge against one's enemies. If the motivation for these remakes boils down to middle America's hatred of subtitles, the ability to depict things American films never could otherwise is surely a close, unspoken second. Ever since Spielberg's E.T. set the tone for the 1980s, movie audiences have reveled in their horror over child abuse scandals and as a result have shied away from portraying kids as anything but saints or, occasionally, evil demons... but either way beset on all sides by skeevy male abductors. Never are they allowed to be sexual and/or ignored - is neglect 'worse' than 'physical' abuse? Is there even a difference?

Having these topics come from Sweden washes the blood off our hands as nervous Yanks. We can do more dark stuff with kids, because hey, it's a remake, of a Swedish film. I have a feeling the same marker of moral responsibility exemption will accompany the sexual violence in Fincher's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake. Thus the Swedish cinema has re-attained its status as America's go-to taboo breaker, a status it won back in 1967 with I am Curious... Yellow, a film that dared to not just show sex, but to show realistic sex, as part of the experiences of a young leftist blonde girl and her older lover filmmaker. The protagonist's sexual openness isn't 'titillating' as much as a provocation . Americans were allowed to see it as 'art' and since it made money, the stage was set for the XXX boom. The leftist politics and new wave handheld style was forgotten but the sex was kept. The phrase 'Swedish erotica' became a redundancy, like American jazz, or Argentine tango.

The original Let the Right One In (2008) dared to assume the American art house market would abandon prurience and moral outrage over the whole child sexuality angle and remember instead the mix of loneliness and exalted terror that is being a child, those pre-empathic Lord of the Flies, Over the Edge kind of feelings from the days when we were sent to our rooms for trying to rebel, and we rolled around in bed and wished we could just kill our parents and be free to eat candy all the time; the agony of being called in by your parents, right when you were about to play a game of 'doctor' with your hot neighbor. When you ran outside after wolfing down your warm milk and yucky vegetables, she was gone.

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