Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Let The Right One In (some thoughts)

Over spring break I watched two movies - the comic-book-based "Watchmen" movie and Kim Hyesoon's favorite movie, the Swedish vampire movie "Let the Right One In."

I'm not going to say anything about "Watchmen" because there just wasn't much to it except to say except that it is in many ways the very opposite of "Let the Right One In." "Watchmen" is populated almost entirely by adults and pretends to be about "Politics" but is really by/for 12-year-old boys. And it is disturbingly pro-life.

"Right One" is an interesting meditation on political/cultural issues but includes very few adults (and they are a pretty dubious, pretty alcoholized bunch), and it is decidedly pro-death (as in a 12-year-old vampire with a sewn-up crotch). "Watchman" is a typical mediocre comic-book-film, "Right One" is a pretty exceptional vampire movie.

I mean "exceptional" as in very good, not as necessarily totally defying of genre convention (one might say that the young-love-with-sinister-overtones has to do with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and this new series Twilight, which apparently has lots of young romance with vampires), but as in "pretty amazing."

It's strange that for all the talk I heard about Right One before I actually got to watch it, I never heard how disturbing it is. Most talk was about how sweet or cute it is. This is a really disturbing movie!

To begin with, it's a story obliquely about child abuse, except the roles have been reversed. The vampire-girl orders around and finally kills her "father"-figure, the way an abusive father might act toward a child (The girl's name is even Eli). And yet, Eli is the one who shows signs of neglect and abuse (she smells, walks around without enough clothes outside, bleeds, has blood smeared on her face etc).

Though perhaps the most disturbing thing is the ending: The boy ends up being the vampire-girl's new serial killer assistant. They ride off into the sunset so to speak, tapping love-codes to each other through her box, but they're riding off to kill people. We know they're not going to have a traditional romance (because of the previously mentioned crotch-shot).

This is important, especially in the sex- and child-concerned "welfare state" (or "folkhemmet" - "the people's home" - as the Social Democrats called it, it was one big happy family). Or perhaps more importantly, the "natural"-obsessed welfare state.

It's also largely a movie about immigration.

For some reason I haven't heard that mentioned, but it's quite obvious. It's in the convention of the vampire movie (Dracula is of course an anti-semitic figure, Nosferatu emigrates etc). The first page of any monster text: it's about the foreign/other etc.

And this movie makes it quite explicit. It's in the very title, it's in the choice of actors (Eli is played by a darkish actress and Oskar is played by a super-blond boy), and of course it's in the plot (a vampire and her strange dad shows up in the suburbs of Stockholm).

A boring anti-xenophobic film would typically show the Swedish kids tell stories about the poor immigrants, who then prove themselves as real human beings and are accepted. The abject is brought into the community.

Thank god, this isn't that type of movie!

Here the myth about the foreigner/vampire is literalized, but the community (or the suburbs) is not such a great place to be, and the story ends with the all-Swedish boy leaving the suburbs on a train (that mythical site of immigrants), opting for the unnatural and deathy, that which the city is always trying to keep out.

A note on the cultural background: It seems important to mention that the film takes place in the early 80s and that it is taking place in the suburbs of Stockholm. The time period is important because this is when the second big immigration wave to Sweden took place.

The suburb is also very important. To begin with, suburbs have totally different connotations in Sweden. They don't represent a place where the rich live (when I grew up in Sweden there were very few "rich" people; Sweden has historically been a very poor, very peasant-based country), it's where working class people lived.

The Swedish government built a whole lot of these in the 1960s as Sweden was changing from a peasant/rural country to a modern industrial nation. The factories desperately needed workers (which is also why the country brought in the first wave of immigrants), and the workers needed some place to live.

[You can see the transition in a film like "I am Curious" which deals with this change and - for all the hoopla about the nudity - paints a pretty perceptive portrait of Sweden.]

It is also noteworthy that when the wave of immigrations took place in the 80s, the Swedish government tended to situate these immigrant groups in suburbs. Because Sweden is very heavy on government-planning, they actually turned certain suburbs into immigrant cities (or "ghettos" I suppose). So the suburbs have echoes of immigration of various kinds.

Those are some incomplete thoughts about this movie. Maybe I'll have something more to say when the film has perculated in my brain a little.

10 Comments:

Blogger Lara Glenum said...

Eli (the 12-year-old vampire "girl") isn't a actually girl. He's a 12-year-old boy who was castrated by the very nobleman who made him a vampire several hundred years ago. Hence the sewn-up crotch. That's why Eli keeps saying, "I'm not a girl." It scans as though s/he's saying that vampires are an indeterminate third sex, but no. S/he means it literally.

In the novel (which is where I got all this info), Eli is referred to as "she" until about halfway through, when Oskar (and the reader) learn Eli's true identity. The "she" is replaced by "he."

10:44 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

That's really interesting. I didn't know it was based on a novel. I thought eli meant "I'm not a girl, I'm a vampire."

10:55 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I guess I'll have to read the book.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

the book is also "Let the Right One In" yes?

12:31 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, the book has that title. Apparently the author is a big Morrissey fan and it's actually a re-translation back into English.

Morrissey is considered like a "great artist" in Sweden.

Johannes

6:45 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Ought Morrissey not be considered a "great artist?"

6:15 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I hope not. Then my youth will be ruined in retrospect!

J

11:39 AM  
Blogger slim husband said...

definitely anti-semitic overtones. did you notice the menorah in the window when the cats were murdering the blonde?

9:57 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Slim,

I think more than overtones. To me the overt mash-up of various vampire-conventions of xenophobia made the movie (*about* xenophobia, antisemitism and the problematic conventions of vampires and monsters.

Johannes

12:06 PM  
OpenID phaedra-amunet said...

Interesting take, although I will point out in response to Slim Husband that the candelabra is a traditional Swedish candelabra and not a menorah.

8:59 AM  

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