In Hollywood, sweetness seems to come in only one grade: industrial-strength. This lack of adaptability explains the rise of a new genre, the sordid romantic comedy. Rather than refashion their fundamentally rom-commy premises, films like There’s Something About Mary and Nurse Betty attempt to distract audiences with tactics borrowed from such nasty boys as Quentin Tarantino and John Waters. They fling gore, semen, and Marshmallow Fluff simultaneously.
There are subtler approaches, however. This week’s new European releases offer three views of romance, and only one of them is traditional: Solomon and Gaenor’s transplanting of Romeo and Juliet to early-20th-century Wales. Not of This World offers a different sort of romantic trianglea nun who’s tempted to abandon God because of her love of an infantand Show Me Love portrays two teenage girls in small-town Sweden who fall in love for very different reasons. None of the films are startling, but each works a distinctive variation on the love story.
The most delicate of the three is writer-director Giuseppe Piccioni’s Not of This World. This tale has issuea newborn named Faustobut no carnality. Fausto is found in a park by a chain-smoking jogger, who promptly hands him to Caterina (Margherita Buy), a nun who’s about to take her final vows. Caterina transfers the baby to the authorities, but she can’t stop thinking about him. Although the nun has forsaken erotic love, she finds that her bond to Fausto is pulling her toward the outside world.
Caterina lives in a convent outside Milan but regularly travels to the city to work in a soup kitchen. Without supervision, she is free to become an amateur detective, tracking the sweater that wrapped the infant to a dry cleaner owned by lonely, middle-aged Ernesto (Silvio Orlando). Ernesto says that the sweater is his, and that he might have lent it to Teresa (Carolina Freschi), a former employee who was pregnant. Ernesto initially keeps his distance, but he begins to feel Fausto’s power, too. After gazing at the boy in the maternity ward, he tells Caterina that he might be the father.
As Caterina begins to think she’s close to reassembling Fausto’s natural family, both of her families assert themselves: Her mother arrives to accuse her of selfishness and her mother superiorwho has just heard about Caterina’s involvement with the babyreproaches her for willfulness. “You’re not of this world,” Ernesto rebukes Caterina when she reacts angrily to his confession of possible paternity. Of course, she’s not the only one: Fausto, whose blurry view of his new life the film sometimes offers, is also a creature from another dimension.
When Caterina finally locates Teresaat a wedding, of coursethe nun’s tidy suppositions are challenged. The film has shown enough of Teresa’s life, however, that the viewer won’t share Caterina’s surprise. Both Caterina and Ernesto have made too many assumptions, and all the nun can really do for Fausto is make a small, touching gesture.
As Piccioni emphasizes with closing group portraits of the main characters with their respective peers, modern industrialized society is a place of uniformed orders and solitary individuals. He equates the nun’s habit with the costumes of policemen, waitresses, and the workers at Ernesto’s shop. Although Not of This World has its comic momentsa few of them rather broadit’s mostly a lament for an age when new global connections (exemplified by Ludovico Einaudi’s world-beat-goes-to-church score and the appearance of a rockabilly band) have done nothing to link neighbors, co-workers, and even relatives. In that context, Caterina’s final decision makes perfect sense.
The original title of Show Me Love is the much more evocative Fucking Amålwhich does not mean that this Swedish teen romance is about fucking. That’s “fucking Amål” as in “fucking Woodbridge” or “fucking Olney”the international distress symbol of the antsy adolescent trapped in a dull small town. Volatile 14-year-old Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) is crazed with boredom, so desperate to alter her state that she raids her mother’s pills; it’s up to her less imaginative older sister, Jessica (Erica Carlson), to point out that Alka-Seltzer and heartburn medicine won’t get her high. “I’ll do something else,” Elin retorts. “Fall in love.”
As we know from a brief prologue, quiet 15-year-old Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) has already fallen in lovewith Elin. Agnes has a sympathetic father and a civilized home, but after two years in Amål, she’s made just one friend: wheelchair-using Viktoria (Josefine Nyberg), whom Agnes doesn’t really like (and who doesn’t really like her). When her well-meaning but clueless mother insists that Agnes have a 16th birthday party, it looks as if Viktoria will be the only guest. Viktoria’s gift is a bottle of perfume named for Swedish teeny-pop star Robyn, and Agnes reacts with a torrent of cruel insults that ends her only friendship.
Agnes is weeping in her room when something unexpected happens: Tired of the usual parties, Elin has dragged Jessica to Agnes’ house. Agnes is surprised to see Elin and stunned when Elinon Jessica’s darekisses her. The sisters flee giggling and Agnes is humiliated, but Elin returns later that night to apologize. The two girls go for a walk, contemplate hitchhiking to Stockholm, and share a real kiss. For the rest of the movie, however, Elin resists her interest in Agnes, even accepting doughy, tiresome Johan (Mathias Rust) as her boyfriend as a way of proving her conventionality. But she’s drawn back to Agnes, and the two finally reconcile in a scene thatdespite all their fellow high-schoolers’ pseudo-sophisticated banter about sexis entirely innocent.
Despite Agnes’ moments of near-suicidal gloom, Show Me Love’s temperament is fundamentally blithe. That may explain why the film rivaled Titanic’s box-office take throughout Scandinaviaand why it’s been underrated in this country. First-time writer-director Lukas Moodysson has been given too little credit for the exceptional skill with which he constructed this simple story, assembling it from short vignettes while forgoing most establishing shots. The effect is warm, intimate, and naturalsort of like a Dogma film in a good mood. Indeed, the zoom-heavy movie seems so close to its characters that some viewers have assumed that it was shot mostly with handheld camerawhich it wasn’t.
Moodysson’s grasp of adolescence’s tempestuous emotional weather is enough to recommend the film, but he also furnishes a provocative subtext: the making of teenage personality in an utterly merchandised environment. The seemingly casual introduction of Robyn perfume is actually a recurring theme that culminates with the final-credits song that provides the movie’s English-language title: “Show Me Love,” sung by Robyn. Earlier, Elin and Agnes have their breakthrough smooch to the strains of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”a song as stirring and banal as teen love itself. Show Me Love may have a happy ending, but unlike American teen movies, it’s conscious of both the emotional and the cultural hazards of life in the 13-to-19 demographic.
The barriers to love are much more severe in writer-director Paul Morrisson’s Solomon and Gaenor, a British-TV drama set in south Wales in 1911. Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd) is the son of recent Orthodox Jewish refugees from Russia who run a fabric store and pawn shop. While selling cloth door to door, he meets Gaenor (Nia Roberts), the pretty daughter of strict chapel-going Protestants. The product of a grim coal-mining town and a grimmer religion, Gaenor falls easily for the handsome stranger. She doesn’t fully understand the implications of their affair, in part because of her naiveté but also because of Solomon’s deception: He tells her his name is Sam Livingstone and says nothing about being Jewish. He also doesn’t mention that his family runs a pawnshop, a business that will become a flashpoint when a miners’ strike leads to financial desperation in the region.
What happens next is surprising only in its vehemence: After some tastefully lighted surreptitious sex, Gaenor becomes pregnant and is banished by her family andin a devastating sceneher congregation. Solomon’s family is no more sympathetic. Gaenor accepts that her lover is Jewish when she finally finds out, but after she decides she can no longer see him, Solomon becomes obsessed. Instantly resentful of Solomon because he doesn’t have the rough hands of a manual laborer, Gaenor’s brutish brother, Crad (Mark Lewis Jones), attacks his sister’s estranged beau as tensions in the area erupt into riots: Out-of-work miners start looting Jewish shops, a development based on actual events. Ultimately, Gaenor is sent away and Solomon follows her on a quest that seems very 19th-century-melodrama.
The film is mostly in English, but it includes enough Welsh and Yiddish for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts to have classified it as a foreign-language movie. In fact, it’s Solomon and Gaenor’s foreignness that distinguishes itas well as fine performances from Gruffudd and newcomer Roberts. On a TV-drama-sized canvas, Morrisson evokes a whole world, one that’s remarkably strange despite being only a few generations removed from contemporary Britain. The plight of the movie’s namesakes will seem familiar to anyone who’s encountered a few pairs of star-crossed lovers on the page or the screen, but this time their circumstances are compellingly unexpected. CP