Stockholm, Sweden, 1975 — a commune is coming apart.
Klas loves Lasse, who doesn’t love him back but is still willing to experiment with homosexuality. Anna loves Elisabeth, mostly for political reasons. Tet and Stefan smoke cigarettes (they’re only ten) but aren’t allowed to eat meat or get Christmas presents. Too bourgeois, you see. And loving peace means uproariously celebrating Franco’s death.
Lest those Yale poseurs with their Che posters and mass-produced bell-bottoms forget, the 1960s and ’70s were about more than fashion. They were about a daily confrontation with death. They were about trying to love peace nonetheless. They were about vegetarianism, socialism, free love and principles.
Unlike the United States, where our hippies happily sold out to the comfortable and commercial ’80s and ’90s (I haven’t heard any “Peace Now” chants in the last month — have you?), Sweden has a legacy of socialist utopianism. Lucas Moodysson’s new film, “Tillsammans” (“Together”), emerges from a historical framework foreign to most Americans. It’s like “Hair,” but with less pot and more Marx.
Moodysson is Ingmar Bergman’s heir to the European imagination, though he redefines and challenges Bergman’s aesthetic and philosophy. Although Bergman called Moodysson’s first film, “F—ing Amal,” “a young master’s first masterpiece,” and Moodysson called Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” one of the best films he’s ever seen, the two have entirely different styles.
Bergman plays chess with God, harsh blacks and whites, and despair, despair, despair. Moodysson plays soccer with God, glorious pop-art colors, and love, love, love.
Our story follows Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren) and her two children, Stefan and Eva (marvelously played by Sam Kessel and Emma Samuelsson, respectively), who move into Together to escape Elisabeth’s alcoholic, abusive husband. Elisabeth’s brother, Goran (Gustav Hammarsten, whose sad, beautiful eyes evoke the great European tradition of the kindhearted Fool), already lives at Together with Lena (Anja Lundkvist), his partner in an open relationship. There is also Anna (Jessica Liedberg), a lesbian who left her husband, Lasse (Ola Norell), and Klas (Shanti Roney), a homosexual who’s madly in love with Lasse. Several children and assorted other characters run around.
The multiple narrative lines are woven together as masterfully as the ones in “Magnolia,” though here everyone lives under one roof. Moodysson clearly nods at a universal message about the value of community; his characters certainly could be read to stand for types (the Lesbian/Feminist, the Child, the Revolutionary, etc.), but each is so touchingly drawn that the individual is never sacrificed for in the message.
But “Together” is not a comedy. There are some exceedingly dark moments involving the potential cruelty of communal living. In particular, it dismisses free love because of its ability to hurt others. It pains the viewer to watch a nauseated Goran listen to his partner enthusiastically gush about the orgasm she had minutes earlier with another man.
The four main children function as counterpoints to the more superficial aspects of the commune. They successfully lobby for the introduction of meat and television. And when two young boys play war games, it seems as though their peace-loving parents can do little to prevent the intrusion of aggressive biology.
It is, of course, the mark of a great film that its message (if we suppose only one) cannot be summed up in a pre-packaged poster-ready tag line. Indeed, if “Together” has a message, it is the bright red screen that appears several times during the film, separating segments and intruding with a non-rational, purely aesthetic moment. This is the red of Marx, surely. But it is also the red of blood, the very blood that, when used to define what makes a family excludes some of the most poignant and loving ties.
If red is a warning, this warns that blood itself is not enough. Family must be reconstructed to have a larger meaning. Devoid of a single cliche or trite moment, “Together” concludes by joining its characters in a glorious soccer game in the snow. The scene erupts with joy and a sense of the primal clan’s pleasure in its own existence. This is a utopia that has lost some members and misplaced some principles, but moves toward its future redefined family, redefined love, and redefined community.
In their new world, our characters are together, but not tethered.