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In my view, two of the most remarkable directors to emerge from the world of international cinema in the 1990s were both of Scandinavian origin. One of them, Lars von Trier, achieved significant fame, attracting attention for both positive and negative reasons. (Von Trier, known for courting controversy, had his detractors, but his film “Breaking the Waves” is considered a masterpiece, among several other noteworthy works.) The other director I’m referring to never attained the same level of recognition, and his films, even during his brief heyday, didn’t become art-house sensations. However, for a certain period, Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson burned brightly with a captivating creative flame.
Moodysson crafted three films marked by astonishing organic craftsmanship and humanistic sincerity: “Show Me Love” (1998), an unexpectedly lyrical love story centering on two high-school girls who fall for each other in a small, less-than-tolerant town; “Together” (2000), an ensemble comedy set in a Stockholm commune during 1975 that brilliantly captured the counterculture zeitgeist; and “Lilya 4-ever” (2002), a haunting tragedy about a wayward girl in the former Soviet Union ensnared by sex traffickers.
Moodysson had a sublime run during this period, but he also experienced one of the most dramatic downturns in the career of a major filmmaker. “A Hole in My Heart” (2004), his bizarre film about three characters attempting (albeit reluctantly) to create an amateur porn video in a squalid apartment, is one of the most unpleasant movies I’ve ever seen, almost feeling like an assault on the audience. (When Moodysson introduced it at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival, he famously said, “I think it’s the best movie ever made,” seemingly quite serious.) Afterward, he appeared to lose his touch, creating the peculiar experimental film “Container,” the lackluster English-language feature “Mammoth” starring Michelle Williams and Gael García Bernal, and “We Are the Best!” which adapted a graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife into a tale filled with fervent punk self-righteousness. Moodysson, much like Von Trier, had always carried a punk spirit (the original title of “Show Me Love” was “Fucking Åmål,” a reference to the film’s setting), but now the humane essence was gone.
All of this crossed my mind while watching “Together 99,” Moodysson’s first feature film in a decade, which premiered at TIFF. This film serves as a sequel to one of his earlier works, continuing the story of the house commune, now set 24 years after the original movie. Naturally, I approached it with the hope that Moodysson would revisit not only the characters from “Together” but also the earlier film’s special blend of wisdom, bittersweetness, and affectionate yet acerbic tone. However, while watching “Together 99,” it becomes evident that Moodysson is now a different filmmaker, and he has lost that distinctive spirit. In essence, he has become somewhat misanthropic, and in “Together 99,” while attempting to depict the romance of youth aging into middle age, the film itself feels curdled.
What made “Together” exceptional was that it was, in a broader sense, a homage to lingering ’70s hippie idealism. The wry joke, however, was that everything the characters did to prolong the “revolution” – their staunch left-wing politics, their absence of a television set, their open relationships that never seemed to work – essentially demonstrated why their chosen lifestyle was doomed to fail. The commune revolved around sharing and selflessness, yet these characters couldn’t have been more self-centered. (Their selflessness was selfish in a way.) Yet Moodysson cherished them for their illusions, and he wanted the audience to do the same. He wasn’t mocking their hypocrisy (well, maybe a little), but rather celebrating the grand folly of individuals simultaneously reaching for and losing sight of what truly matters.
The setup for “Together 99” is often described as “there are only two people left in the commune,” but that doesn’t quite capture it. Göran (Gustaf Hammarsten), a melancholic activist-journalist, and Klasse (Shanti Roney), a textile maker, are indeed the only inhabitants of the commune’s current residence (which is different from the one in the first film). However, two men sharing a house and squabbling over whether to use hot water for washing dishes isn’t a “commune.” It’s two middle-aged roommates living under a delusion that borders on madness.
The two discuss the idea of recruiting new “members,” and it’s in this spirit, an effort to reconnect with humanity, that Klasse arranges a surprise party for Göran’s 60th birthday. He arranges for all the former Together commune members to visit, and the entire film unfolds over the course of that day and night.
The other characters have moved on with their lives, so the gathering feels somewhat like a college reunion. However, nobody really talks about what they’ve been up to. Some essential points are mentioned – Signe (Cecilia Frode) and Sigvard (Lars Frode) now work in television, which challenges the old ethos of boycotting TV because it’s detrimental, but the concept of “Together 99” is that for 24 hours, everyone sets their lives aside and flirts with the notion of becoming the commune again. This doesn’t entirely make sense dramatically because it isn’t entirely believable. It’s reboot logic applied to an art film.
I could delve into the various characters and situations, but that might risk making this review less engaging. Klasse, still nursing feelings for Lasse (Jonas Karlsson), who has since become a renowned theater director; Lena (Anja Lundqvist), expelled from the commune near the end of “Together,” now appearing as a vibrant enigma who brings along a silent young woman (Clara Christiansson Drake) she claims is her daughter; Peter (David Dencik), who appears to be a party crasher since nobody remembers him; and Erik (Olle Sarri), who, in one of the film’s few vibrant scenes, passionately critiques his ex-commune mates for the naivety of their shared politics – to the extent that it’s hard not to feel like he’s speaking for the filmmaker.
What’s peculiar about “Together 99” is that it retains the look and pacing of a Lukas Moodysson film – characterized by natural light and a documentary-style flow – but it’s veiled in a dampened, melancholic Swedish bourgeois cynicism that suggests Moodysson could benefit from more diverse experiences. In the ’70s, there was an ongoing debate regarding films like Robert Altman’s “Nashville”: did Altman genuinely care for his characters, or was he condescending toward them? As an Altman enthusiast, I never perceived the condescension that some critics did. However, I now sense that attitude in Lukas Moodysson’s work. It’s not that he despises his characters; rather, he no longer seems to cherish them enough to imbue them with an inner radiance. “Together 99” is akin to an extended cocktail party in which no one ever appears genuinely happy or free, preventing the audience from experiencing any sort of emotional connection.