Has an auteur ever turned on his characters and the worldview they triumph as sharply and definitively as Lukas Moodysson? The Euro-pop feel-goodisms of his debut and sophomore productions may have been, in hindsight, an aesthetic blind alley (an emotionally mature film about a ramshackle socialist co-op that miraculously manages to eschew both quirky familial clichés and carpe diem bromides while still remaining impressively uplifting is a hell of an act to follow), but few could have predicted that the hard-earned bittersweet treacle of Together would require the balancing brimstone of A Hole in My Heart. Still, one cannot help but respect the candor and assiduousness of an artistic vision that readily admits when it has run out of juice and purports to reinvent itself; and after the alternately hilarious and unwatchable Bolex bleak-gasm of Container, it seems that Moodysson has dollied his desultory cinema into another thorny corner.
The follow-up, Mammoth, is likely to be viewed as a compromise of sorts between the two tidy phases the director’s oeuvre has thus far undergone, and, indeed, the film’s subcutaneous message of global hope that is neither automatically bestowed nor eradicated but achieved through painstaking, often necessarily egocentric choices smartly blends Moodysson’s initial humanism with the venomous cynicism of his subsequent work. But as with most compromises, it possesses an underlying, and distracting, disingenuousness. We’re far too conscious of the hesitant control Moodysson exercises over his international plot: Contrived pockets of luck (both good and bad) and unfounded self-awareness seem to intrude into the storyline like bumpers meant to keep the ever-fallible characters just barely out of the nihilistic gutter. And while it marks a modestly successful return to the examination of filial values that buoyed the warm-heartedness of Moodysson’s fledgling features with an indelibly uneasy incisiveness, Mammoth ultimately becomes too overwhelmed by its desire to say something of socio-political significance to articulate its point with any lasting eloquence.
The casually bloated script observes the day-to-day hardships of a misfit-ish, polyglottal family operating both as a cohesive group and a confederacy of disillusioned souls: Leo (Gael García Bernal) is an upstanding video game executive tempted by the sin citadel of Bangkok’s nightlife while on a business trip; his wife, Ellen (Michelle Williams), operates on wounded waifs as an ICU surgeon in a New York slum; and Filipino nanny Gloria (Marife Necesito) teaches Tagalog to their lonesome second-grade daughter Jackie (Sophie Nyweide) while remotely mothering her own two sons via bleary-eyed cellphone calls to her homeland. With material this broadly issue-conscious, it’s an achievement that Moodysson only intermittently succumbs to maudlin dramatizing, but each sand trap of sentimentalism the film stumbles upon nearly proves terminal.
Moodysson’s nuanced mastery of the niceties of maternal relationships both biological and symbolic offered some of the most genuine moments in his first two films; here, matronly confrontation is used not to gradually whittle characters with unnervingly detailed psyches, but to insist upon types that individuals involuntarily embody within the tortuous emotional web of Western exploitation. In particular, the decision to heavy-handedly depict rather than excruciatingly imply the penurious details of Gloria’s outsourced labor—she sends her wages home toward the building of a new family house while her mother and children weep bitterly in their third-world alienation—overshadows the New York and Thailand threads with pitifully manipulative, slumdog squalor. Much like the climax to Gregory Nava’s El Norte, wherein the protagonist is forced to unrealistically select between vague brotherly obligation and a decent but distant job, the gratuitous dose of “reality” provided by a clumsily foreshadowed act of child rape in Mammoth suggests that no matter one’s economic stratum, most interpretations of “dedicated parenting” are likely to be tested and brutally chastised by social circumstance.
The film’s “predator” motif is thankfully not this condescendingly superficial throughout (though Gael García Bernal’s Leo makes a yawn-inducing error by sexlessly patronizing a sadsack, opportunistic Thai hooker and then fooling himself into a pseudo-passionate fling with her), and the most impressively sketched character, Michelle Williams’s Ellen, is evidence enough that there remains a sympathetic but honest woman’s director behind even Moodysson’s misfires. In the film’s feverishly antiseptic hospital sequences, Ellen’s failures as an urban mother impel her to selfishly invest emotion in the damaged youths that pass through her ward, an attempt at foraging self-worth dismally doomed to crumble every time that the fatalistic crossfire of the streets outside intervenes. And though the all-but-unspoken duel for the flighty favor of Ellen’s daughter between Gloria and Ellen herself veers dangerously close to Spanglish-grade race-relations myopia, the petulant exchanges displaying the limbo of their half-business, half-personal relationship are laced with reluctant bitterness and embarrassed jaundice. When Ellen softly scolds Gloria for “distracting” Jackie with her patient tutorials on Filipino culture, Williams deftly digs into the subtle scorn of a deservedly spurned matriarch (she later, of course, is overcome with regret over the incident; after all, why should we feel guilty for outsourcing parental duties?).
It’s also scenes like these that remind us that Moodysson is better at rendering the multitudinous mechanics of relationships than he is at fashioning those relationships into emblems; it’s the dissection of archetype rather than the assembly of allegory that defines his elusive gift. As such, it’s hard not to miss the trenchancy of his early work—the smirking, satirical quick-zooms and esoteric soundtrack choices—in an all-too-sober film like Mammoth. Interestingly, however, Mammoth does share the significantly symmetrical structure of Together: Both the opening and closing scenes show Leo, Ellen, and Jackie giddily enjoying themselves as the sort of sturdy, triangular family that engages in pillow fights on Saturday mornings. But where the denouement of Together cheekily suggested that a return to normalcy does not always require a return to “normal,” the cyclical nature of Mammoth is intended as a critique of the specious complacency of American domesticity despite the turmoil of emotions we share with—and we thrust upon—the less fortunate.
The putative happiness provided by the modern family nucleus and the problematic devotion required of motherhood are topics that never tire of investigation—they enabled, in fact, much of the piquancy of Together. But when a director begins appropriating potentially fecund themes as open-ended conclusions, the best one can hope for is that his curiosity has not yet been satisfied. In the spirit of the best of Moodysson, let’s be optimistic but realistic and simply say that Mammoth is a very unique sort of film—a transitional, almost deliberately pensive movie from a director who typically charts a ruthlessly direct course.