Our House

Together is a bittersweet look at '70s commune life ... in Sweden!

Sep 26, 2001 at 4:00 am
Together is the second feature from Swedish director Lukas Moodysson, whose 1998 Fucking Amal was shown here two years ago under the title Show Me Love, renamed for obvious reasons. Together is an ensemble piece -- a sharp, perceptive look at a Swedish commune in a suburb of Stockholm, circa 1975. That Moodysson himself would have been just 6 years old at the time makes his ability to capture the spirit of the era only more impressive.

Because the cast contains no faces familiar to American audiences, it takes a while for us to learn enough to keep track of the different denizens of the house where almost all of the action takes place. The de facto head of the household is Göran (Gustav Hammarsten), an ever-patient thirtyish guy who somehow manages to mediate and calm down the often clashing personalities of the others, who represent a mishmash of assorted countercultural tendencies -- communist revolutionaries, feminists, vegetarians ... essentially anything that could be considered in opposition to any single aspect of the dominant culture.

Things start to unravel -- well, because it seems as though things are always unraveling among this group, let's just say that the particular unraveling that forms the dramatic structure of the film begins with two events. First, Goran's more conventional sister, Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren), leaves her drunken, abusive husband, Rolf (Michael Nyqvist); as an unemployed housewife, she has nowhere else to go, so Göran, without much consultation with his housemates, invites her and her two children -- 10-year-old Stefan (Sam Kessel) and 13-year-old Eva (Emma Samuelsson) -- to "temporarily" stay with them.

The house is already short of space, but that's merely one problem. Eva -- studious, bespectacled and in the first flush of adolescence -- is at exactly the age where she might be brooding and withdrawn even without her family falling apart around her. Stefan is less aware, and the commune's culture -- as personified by Tet (Axel Zuber), an 8-year-old, who, yes, was named after the well-known Vietnam offensive -- is nonetheless bewildering to him.

The second precipitating event is the breakup of Tet's parents, two communards -- Lasse (Ola Norell) and Anna (Jessica Liedberg) -- whose "enlightened" marriage has proved no more stable than that of the stolidly middle-class Rolf and Elisabeth. Anna, having decided that she's basically a lesbian, has left Lasse, who is understandably upset, what with the two of them remaining under the same roof and her trying to come on to whatever other women drift into their sphere -- including, of course, Elisabeth.

In fact, Lasse is so bummed that Göran's girlfriend, Lena (Anja Lundqvist), decides to cheer him up by sleeping with him, after first getting Göran's "permission" to do so. In turn, this frustrates Klas (Shanti Roney, looking ever so much like Crispin Glover), the gay roommate who is lusting after Lasse.

On one level, Together is a countercultural soap opera, though played more as bittersweet comedy than as drama. Occasionally the characters' behavior seems exaggerated. But even so, the movie is more accurate culturally than politically. The serious political aspects of the period are reduced to a series of jokes -- "Let's play Pinochet torture games!" Tet tells Stefan -- and it's no accident that the least fully delineated character is the group's one communist (Olle Sarri), who is -- natch -- the son of a banker.

Moodysson makes it clear that the gap between the protagonists and the character representing everything they are reacting against isn't all that great. Rolf, the abusive lout, isn't so different from the promiscuous, irresponsible Lena, and even the disapproving neighbors are susceptible to the same kinds of good and bad behavior that make the main characters a mix of the reprehensible and the essentially likable.

If there is a central difference between the mid-'70s Swedish movement depicted here and its earlier American equivalent, it's that the American counterculture was held together by one urgent, overriding issue -- the war in Vietnam. Although Moodysson has said that the Swedish communal experience was running a few years behind the American version, he in fact sets the film at a time when things would have been increasingly similar, six months after the fall of Saigon and the effective end of the Vietnam War. Without the shadow of that overwhelming event, the differences among all the disparate elements that made up the American counterculture suddenly became more important than the similarities.

To oversimplify, the result was that funk gave way to disco and social ideals to the Me Decade, and Jerry Rubin decided to become a businessman. In a benevolent way, Together shows how the roots for those sorts of transformations were always in place.