A film out of place

Lukas Moodysson’s Container is not so much a film as a weird modern art video. So what’s it doing in the cinema?

Nathalie Rothschild

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When Swedish director Lukas Moodysson was invited to show his latest work, Container, at the Berlin Film Festival, he was both pleased and surprised. ‘It’s so weird, I didn’t think anyone would want it’, he said. As a poetic, experimental, 74-minute, black-and-white stream of consciousness, it is indeed not easy viewing. And yet it has now reached the London Film Festival and is opening at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) this week.

Moodysson, who also directed Together, the surprise comedy hit about a hippy commune which was released in 2000, has called Container a ‘black-and-white silent movie with sound’. He explains it as follows: ‘A woman in a man’s body. A man in a woman’s body. Jesus in Mary’s stomach. The water breaks. It floods into me. I can’t close the lid. My heart is full.’ Which kind of says it all. Throughout the film, American actress Jena Malone speaks similar words of wisdom, non-stop, in a sleepy, pleading and husky voice. She talks about, it seems, anything that’s on her mind, including Jesus, Savannah the porn star, nuclear disaster, corn flakes and Paris Hilton.

This messy stream of words and observations gets more confusing when trying to connect them with the images shown on screen. An overweight white man and a slim Asian woman move around in claustrophobic rooms full of junk, among garbage tips, derelict buildings and on public squares. Sometimes the man carries the woman on his back, sometimes he lifts her up like a baby. Once he puts her in a bathtub; another time he gets into the bathtub himself, wearing a woman’s dress and a wig, and the woman turns on the shower. They rub against walls and do weird things with a fetus-doll, like tape it to their heads and lick it. They also lick their own mirror images, and tables and liquor bottles.

Jena Malone tells us early on, ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body’, so it seems the three characters are different versions or elements of a multiple self. And it seems Moodysson himself is in there somewhere as well. When an hour or so into the film (or at least that’s what it felt like), Malone says ‘there’s a hole in my head and my brains are spilling out’, I felt like I knew what she was talking about.

Luckily, Moodysson presented the film screening by giving some advice on how to view Container, telling the audience not to try to follow the whole thing from beginning to end. Instead, we should just drift in and out – or even fall asleep. At the Q&A afterwards, by which time many people had already left the theatre, Moodysson said that although there is no linear story, the film has a spiralling movement and you’ll begin to see the pattern maybe after a seventh viewing.

To my question on whether this piece of work really belongs in the cinema, Moodysson answered firmly: ‘Yes.’ He says he would like cinema to be full of extremes, to include both American comedies and films like Container.

Later, Moodysson explained that there are several versions of the film; he decided to create a separate English-language version as it would be ‘too much’ to have to follow both the images, the voiceover and subtitles, and because the Swedish version had very particular references. He has also created three exhibitions, one Swedish, one Danish and one English, which allow viewers to ‘walk inside the film’ and to decide for themselves for how long they want to watch it. ‘People can watch five minutes or eight hours, or they can sleep for a long time’, he said. He said that Container does belong in the cinema, but that maybe it works better in the exhibitions.

It is not fair to just dismiss Container as a pretentious piece of conceptual art or a random collection of words and images. There is a logic to it, which Moodysson and a few select others are probably aware of, but Moodysson is reluctant to give out any clues and instead he lets the audience do the work. He did give a very useful insight at the Q&A, however, when he said that in fact this film is very realistic because there are always so many things going on in one’s head and at the same time so many things going on around us, and he tried to make a film where none of it would be filtered out. He says he himself is interested in everything, but probably just pursues one or two things at a time, which makes him sane. The person in Container, however, doesn’t have a filter, which makes him insane. Moodysson says he knows people like that, who are just overwhelmed by the world.

Though I take Moodysson’s point that it’s enjoyable to have wide variety of options in the cinema, when something doesn’t work as a film, then why insist on releasing it in theatres? Why not just stick to putting Container in a modern art gallery where people can interact with it in precisely the way Moodysson wants? There, we can relate to it in personal ways and engage with Moodysson’s reflections for however long we want. We can focus on one element of the film or try to take it in its entirety. At the cinema, however, we expect to sit through a film from beginning to end and usually we expect to share the experience with other people, instead of just understanding it on our own terms, or drifting in and out of the story or falling asleep.

Just because Container was scripted, directed, recorded and edited together, and just because its creator is an experienced film director, that doesn’t make it a film.

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