Dir. Lisa Aschan, Sweden, 2011, 84 mins, in Swedish with subtitles
Cast: Mathilda Paradeiser, Linda Molin, Isabella Lindquist, Sergej Merkusjev, Kevin Caicedo Vega
Review by Colin Dibben
How do you react if a film is described as a ‘sensitive exploration of female desire’? Do you arch your eyebrows and sardonically say ‘oh yeah?’; rush to see it, clawing your wallet with sweaty hands; or just watch Sucker Punch for the nth time, with a box of tissues nearby? Only those of an interested but suspicious mind will appreciate this surprising tale of athletic, Swedish, teenage women.
Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) gets accepted to train for her local equestrian vaulting team. Equestrian vaulting, as you probably don’t know, is gymnastics on horseback. It’s also a non-Olympic event, in case you wondered. Cassandra (Linda Molin) is the golden girl of the team and she resents Emma’s appearance – at the same time as being attracted to her in a detached but touchy-feely way. So, Cassandra is hands-on, but her hands are as likely to push Emma in front of a bus as stroke her arm inquisitively. Meanwhile, Emma’s much-younger sister, Sara (Isabella Lindquist), is becoming aware of both her gender and the power of her affections, which makes baby-sitting her an uncomfortable experience for male cousin, Sebastian (Kevin Caicedo Vega).
This is a sensitively made film about controversial subjects, but it is also both confusing and disturbing. Firstly, there’s the secondary narrative thread, the sexualisation of Emma. This strand is so strong that it overpowers the main story, partly because Emma’s exaggerated mimicking of adult sexual behavior contrasts so highly with the ambiguous and deadpan desires of Cassandra and Emma; and partly because the subject of children’s sexuality is controversial in itself. Isabella Lindquist is by far the most involving actress in the film, her’s is an astonishing, almost frightening performance. Secondly, there is something overly ambiguous about the feelings Cassandra and Emma have for each other: is it competition or physical love? Thirdly, Linda Molin’s performance as Cassandra is completely unengaging – perhaps she considered that her character had been Diazepam-ed by desire? Her performance gives credence to neither her passion for Emma nor her desire to compete and win. Mathilda Paradeiser’s Emma, on the other hand, is perfectly passive aggressive and this is why the second half of the film, when she cashes in her passivity for something more devastating, works wonderfully. Fourthly, writer-director Lisa Aschan and her director of photography, Linda Wassberg, have crafted some very mannered shots that suck much of the energy out of this apparent love story.
She Monkeys is also a cheekily high-concept film. The clicks and snaps on the soundtrack, and the title also, highlight that the movie is exploring the role of environmental influences and inter-personal dynamics in learned behaviour, especially in the learning of sexual inhibitions. If you’re a glass-half-full delusionist, you might read the ambiguity of the women’s feelings towards each other as a celebration of a de-genitalised, amorphous, fluid desire. It seems to fit better as a sex = power conflict between two wannabe alpha females.
A disturbing and intelligent but also dazed and irresolute film that’s very different from Lisa Aschan’s previous work as assistant director on 2007’s The Killing. This debut feature suggests a precocious talent that’s well worth watching.