13 April 2009

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN / Låt den rätte komma in (Dir. Tomas Alfredson, 2008, Sweden) - 'You have to invite me in...'

The director, Tomas Alfredson, spent a year casting the two child leads in the role of Eli and Oskar.

[Apologises; spoilers ahead]

Once in a while a film comes along that renews your faith in contemporary cinema. It’s not surprising that the film in question is an example of superlative world cinema film making as Hollywood and American cinema continue to look outwards not for inspiration but to see how best they can re-appropriate emerging styles and aesthetics in hope of satisfying the never ending thirst for commercial exploitation. Swedish film maker, Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Let the Right One In’ is cinema that never falters or stutters in its mesmerising control over the language of film. Anything remotely brilliant or which has the potential of being transformed into the next in house franchise seems to be an easy target for the Hollywood studios. Hollywood have already pounced on the rights to remake Alfredson’s masterpiece of disquiet yet why do film makers and producers continue to allow this to happen when the reality is that only a handful of films have really ever measured up in any way to the original.

In his article for the latest issue of the Sight and Sound film journal, UK film critic Mark Kermode, an articulate authority on the horror genre, remarked on the film’s problematic genre status:

‘Despite the laudatory labels that have been attached to it, Let the Right One In falls into that category of truly great movies which are best defined not by what they are, but by what they are not’

‘It is what it’s not’ – Mark Kermode, Sight and Sound, May 2009

This is quite true as to simply interpret the film as a vampire film overlooks the moving allegorical readings of the relationship between 12 year old Oskar (Kare Hedebrandt) and Eli (Lina Leandersson) a mysterious girl he befriends who lives in the same apartment block. Like most genres, the vampire film continues to offer the chance to explore contemporary anxieties and fears, many of which have tended to be socially and politically relevant. One of the most complex and ideologically significant readings of the vampire myth is the one that has readily equated it with capitalism:

In Capital Marx comments that 'capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour'.

[Marxism] Vampire capitalism, Sat, 22 Apr 2006, By Mark Neocleous

Gus Van Sant's 'Elephant' comes to mind when we see Oskar at school

Though it would be difficult to see how this perspective fits in with the film, it does stress how vampires have always been in some way related to the changing social milieu and that for the myth to exist and really affect the imagination, a crisis of some kind facing society is altogether more helpful in acting as a catalyst for the notion of immortality. Alfredson deliberately sets in the film in the context of a depressive 80s, a time in which Sweden was experiencing urban deprivation and unemployment. Interestingly, the class divide in most European countries has never been greater and with the current economic crisis, the concrete milieu of Blackeberg doesn’t seem too far removed from our own dystopian reality. The film works on multiple genre levels; coming of age, social realism, vampire film, and the delicacy with which Alfredson depicts the relationship between Oskar and Eli gives it an unrivalled level of genuine sympathy from the spectator.

Personally, it’s hard not to see how Alfredson uses the conventionality of the vampire genre as a vehicle for allegorically exploring the issue of poverty. The reviews I have come across so far have failed to pick up on this point but I am guessing the emptiness that follows the character of Eli, something that is effectively conveyed through the demoralised apartment in which she lives, can also be viewed as a kind of self imposed poverty. Though she is a vampire, this complicates the tender relationship she has with whom we assume is her father. Their otherness means they are never considered to be part of normal society and once again, as Eli is a vampire, it is easy to account for the absence of material goods in her life; the truth that all she ultimately needs is blood to remain functional does not go unchallenged in what is a tightly paced narrative that never feels the need to signpost the more horrific elements of a film which has been seen as the antithesis of the genre. Everything to them is simply pointless except of course friendship which Eli and Oskar come to value as much more profoundly valuable than even mainstream conformity. Eli’s outsider status is what first attracts Oskar to her benign nature but ironically, for all the poverty that he witnesses, he is in awe of the reliance with which she defends her existence in the world and such an ideological imperative of adolescent resistance empowers Oskar to face his tormentors.

The only honest relationship in the film exists between two children

Thematically, violence as self defence is justified in the realm of high school bullying and Alfredson’s austere and at times chillingly sterile depiction of the educational establishment eerily references the rigid formal style of Gus Van Sant’s masterful ‘Elephant’. Like all great films with children at the focus of the narrative, ‘Let the Right One In’ continues the endearing yet realistic tradition of depicting the adults as suspicious, unreliable and incapable of providing comfort or defence for those in need of help. One of the most striking aesthetic details of the film is Alfredson’s beautifully, balanced compositions, with many of the shots striving to emphasise the landscapes of Blackeberg as somewhat threatening, hostile and strangely nostalgic. As this is a reality viewed through the eyes of two ghostly children, much of the haunting imagery is stunningly photographed against the backdrop of a wintry landscape. Not since The Coens with 'Fargo' has snow been used to such unsettling effect and its presence within the film offers a wider metaphor for the paralysis of Oskar.

The pains of adolescence; alienation plays a key theme in the film

The director has said in many of his interviews that he sees the ending to the film as a happy one. Though the final actions of Eli results in a macabre yet necessary act of salvation, the uncharacteristic idea of escape is what makes the film most disturbing because the ones escaping are children. In many ways, this is the right ending and the note it strikes at the end is a deeply satisfying one as it confirms the confidence of what is near perfection in terms of film making. I'm not so sure if Hollywood will naturally inherit the confidence of Alfredson's ending as unfortunately it is not motivated by multiplex mathematics.

The Internet Movie Database cites the film as having won 43 awards (yes, of course, not all of them hold any real significance) which is extraordinary and illustrates how a middle of the road Swedish vampire film has endeared itself to film critics and many notable web bloggers. It is satisfying to see that such a remarkable film didn’t just fade away into obscurity. I have had real difficulty trying to to find about the film's budget but the the director Tomas Alfredson has said that the film's budget was relatively large when compared to the budgets attracted by typical mainstream films in Sweden. So far the worldwide gross for the film is around $7 million (see box office mojo for further details) but this does not account for the money it will hopefully make in the UK, if it does as well as expected. It certainly has been received well in the UK and it stands an excellent chance of attracting an unusually wide audience as the film has managed to find its way into multiplexes (Cineworld), primarily because of the positive word of mouth (think Donnie Darko) and the film’s commercially attractive genre allusions.

On a final note, the poster art for the film has also been a key influence in marketing the film. The UK film poster on the left is much more enigmatic than the original poster used to promote the film in Sweden. Though I prefer the UK version for its minimalist and haunting imagery, the Swedish poster is much more graphic and disturbing, but more importantly the iconic image of Oskar at his apartment window is really what the film is about; the fear of loneliness, which just happens to be the oldest vampire anxiety of all.

UK film critic, Mark Kermode reviews the film as a video blog:


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