When I was at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999, a buzz had been generated across town for a Swedish film entitled “F*****g Amal”. This was due to the trade advertisements that pictured two pretty teenage girls (presumably lovers) above the questionable title.
“Does f*****g mean the same thing in Sweden?” people started to ask each other. “Who is Amal, is that a guy’s or a girl’s name?” and “What the hell is this thing?” demanded others, fumbling through the Hollywood Reporter, desperate for some sort of plot description.
With ticket in hand, and practically no knowledge of what the actual film was about, I went to attend a market screening of the film in the Palais… unsuccessfully.
“STAND BACK!” yelled a balding fifty-ish representative from Trust Film Sales, as he stood on a chair so that he could see over the bull rush clamoring to get into the screening room.
“WE JUST DON’T HAVE ENOUGH SEATS”. Groans of disappointment – way too many tickets had been given out. MITIC (The Cannes Market organization) had somehow decided to present the film in the smallest screening room they could find. Someone I knew was so persistent that he begged the Trust Film Sales Rep into giving him permission to sit on the floor. With very little actual hype, and only a few simple ads, “F*****g Amal” had attracted the crowds that unsold independent films in the Market could only dream of. Hmm, I wonder if it had something to do with the title.
Almost exactly one year later, I was able finally see “F*****g Amal”, now under the pseudonym “Show Me Love” (named after the tune by Robyn used in the soundtrack) in the Strand Releasing Presentation showcased at the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema. With Strand now acting as domestic distributor, the film is has gotten a limited release in US cities.
Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg) is fairly new to the small Swedish town of Amal. Worse than unpopular, Agnes is openly ridiculed by her high school peers. Her only friend, the girl in a wheelchair Camilla (Lisa Skagerstam), is not even really a friend. They have a relationship based on mutual rejection. Most of Agnes’s time is spent alone, sitting at home with her parents. Posters for “Casablanca” and Orson Welles hang on her bedroom wall. She likes classical music, poetry, and spends time writing in her journal, almost exclusively about Elin, the girl she is in love with, but doesn’t have the courage to approach. So strong are Agnes’s feelings that she tries to commit suicide.
Elin (Alexandra Dahstrom) is one of the “cool” people. Blond, tight-figured, red lipped, dressed in mini skirts, she has the reputation of being a slut, even though she’s a virgin. “Nobody’s putting anything in me… fingers maybe” Elin says. Despite going to all the “in” parties, Elin is just as lonely as Agnes, perhaps even more so. Elin is so totally and constantly bored that she considers “robbing a pensioner”. She hates “F*****g Amal,” and longs to live in a “happening” urban environment like Stockholm. Her closest friend is her older sister, the cynical Jessica (a great sarcastic performance by Erica Carlson).
Jessica is shallow; she judges things by their cover, content in her ignorance. Jessica and Elin fight ferociously one minute, and are best friends the next. Together, the two sisters spend their time hanging out, attempting to get drunk or stoned, attending “raves,” and listening to the newest rock albums. Their bedroom is adorned with posters of the Spice Girls, and other assorted pop culture phenomenons from America and the UK.
Following a prank in which Elin kisses Agnes, Elin feels remorse. Elin seeks out Agnes that evening and after an interlude on the side of a highway, Elin realizes her own sexual attraction towards Agnes. Jessica, noting both Elin’s absence and secrecy, and sure that it is romantic, demands an explanation from her sister. Elin, unsure of her own sexuality, eventually falsely names Johann Hult (Mathias Rust). Not long after, Elin loses her virginity to Johann, a not-too-bright lad who buzzes around on a Moped. Johann is best friends with Jessica’s boyfriend Markus (Stefan Horberg), who’s a bit brighter, but not by much, and spends his time with his buddies arguing that he has the “coolest” cell phone.
Whereas Elin has popularity, friends, good looks, and a loud, though unabrasive personality, she somehow lacks the strength of Agnes. Naturally shy and timid, Agnes is able to be honest with her feelings, she doesn’t repress them. Elin dreams of Agnes at night, but she will not consciously admit to herself that she is in love. “I’m a lesbian” says Elin to her mother. After getting a brief confused glance, Elin says “never mind, I’m kidding”. When Agnes’s mother learns of her daughter’s homosexuality, Agnes refuses to deny it. She only becomes enraged that her rights to privacy have been violated.
While also being a film that explores teen angst and sexuality, “F*****g Amal/Show Me Love”, at heart, is essentially a search for identity. Agnes and Elin, in finding each other, find themselves. It takes courage to be different. In its resolution, alienation and loneliness have been replaced with pride and determination.
“F*****g Amal/Show Me Love” is the first feature film from Lukas Moodysson. An accomplished poet and author in Sweden, Moodysson apparently felt confined in writing. According to the press kit, he was frustrated that he wasn’t able to create visuals for his work. As a result, Moodysson enrolled in the National Film School of Sweden, and has since made the award winning short films “Showdown in the Underworld” and “Talk”.
“F*****g Amal/Show Me Love” is ALL Dialogue. Hardly thirty seconds pass in this film without words. Simply listening to the halting, long-voweled speech patterns of the young Swedish voices is a unique experience. Moodyssson is able to turn realism into something lyrical. Working from his own original screenplay, this is undeniably a writer’s film. With the audio so blatant and uninhibited, Moodysson makes no attempt to give the visuals any form of seamless or polished grace.
The clumsy zoom-ins, jittery pans, and herky jerky camerawork are not a nuisance for a viewer, but the perfect visualization for the unpredictable story material. The film stock itself has been soaked in grain. With its very first shot of Agnes typing away on her keyboard in her bedroom, one would swear that this film was a documentary. Slightly awkward, Agnes is so beautiful with her ordinary looks and gestures that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her.
The cinematography gives new meaning to the term ‘intimate’. One of Moodysson’s witty trademarks appears to be giving us the establishment shot at the end of a scene rather than in the beginning. Elin and Jessica, along with boy toys Markus and Johann, sit on park benches arguing about their future career paths. The entire scene is done in tight close-ups of the character faces, after everything has been said, Moodysson reveals a wide shot to reveal how very far the two couples are away from each other. Moodysson takes pride in claustrophobia; he’s constantly closing the walls in, making things feel more enclosed and confined for the audience than it may be in reality.
The only objection I have with this film is its new Americanized title, “Show Me Love”. “F*****g Amal” is so perfectly expressive, and it says everything — angst, rage, alienation. Much like the film, “F*****g Amal”, as title, is blunt and in-your-face, it makes no apologies for itself. “Show me Love” is the sort of vapid watered down title we’d expect from Hollywood for the latest romantic comedy trash fest starring Drew Barrymore. It says absolutely nothing, and can never come within reach of the sort of hoopla its original title created when it was unveiled in Cannes. Surely, even “Agnes & Elin,” with its pure simplicity, would have made a more appropriate label.
Whatever title it is given, nobody can deny the honesty or the outright sincerity this film has. Having viewed the film three times on the big screen, I must confess that “F*****g Amal/Show Me Love” has a life all its own. Liljeberg and Dahstrom give performances that are not only super realistic, but also genuine. Upon leaving the theater each time, I find it absolutely impossible to believe that Agnes and Elin are fictional characters that do not exist. It’s a heartbreaking thought and I just refuse to believe it.
[ “Show Me Love” is due out on video from Strand Releasing in September. ]