Inside The Container: A bid to explain Lukas Moodysson's controversial film

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The Independent Culture

"Clearly this individual has issues to do with identity and with not quite knowing who she or he is, what gender he or she belongs to, what other human beings he or she is attracted to." Thus speaks the psychoanalyst. "When we look for ourselves, we are like explorers in a very dangerous place," warns the priest.

The subject under discussion is the 38-year-old Swedish film-maker, Lukas Moodysson. In order to work out what makes Moodysson tick, the priest, the psychoanalyst and a psychic watched his new feature Container several times and wandered round the bizarre art installation that he created to accompany it. Inside The Container Crypt, a documentary, records their observations. The three experts are certainly more sympathetic toward Container and its mercurial director than the British critics. "Fantastically dull," "a baffling act of self-sabotage," and, "painful to watch," were among the more upbeat responses from the UK press when the film was released in Britain last year. The critics were clearly stumped by an experimental, black and white, psycho-drama about - as the director's explained it - "a woman in a man's body, a man in a woman's body, Jesus in Mary's stomach."

Moodysson was supposed to be the bright young hope of European cinema. His first two features, Show Me Love and Together, were greeted with rapture. Ingmar Bergman called him a "young master", and had seemed to anoint him as his successor.

Perhaps the Swedish director was frustrated by the level of attention and expectation that surrounded him. As Bergman wrote: "we place unreasonable expectations which, hopefully, won't be overbearing." His response with Container was to make a film that seemed (in the eyes of detractors) to mark a nadir in navel-gazing obscurantism.

Even before Container, Moodysson's work had been getting darker and more difficult. Together (2000), his biggest success, was a gently satirical drama set in a Seventies commune. Lilja 4-ever (2002), about a young Russian woman drawn into a brutal life of prostitution in the West, was far darker in tone. A Hole In My Heart (2004), billed as "a mix between Hieronymus Bosch and Big Brother", about a young man watching his father and a friend shooting an amateur porn film, was regarded by some as repellent. Container was yet another step away from the mainstream. Images of a transvestite alone in a hotel room, or of detritus-strewn streets, is accompanied by a meandering monologue - beautifully recited by the actress Jena Malone - in which the focus jumps from sex to celebrity, and from religion to environmental disaster.

Reviewers who loathed it will be be even more dismayed by the documentary in which the priest, the shrink and the medium pore over his installation. Seemingly designed to illustrate the director's state of mind, it showcases broken dolls, a porn star's knee-high PVC boots, and a decapitated figurine of the Virgin Mary.

Moodysson seems remarkably unperturbed at the mixed responses Container has elicited: "The opinions of critics are sometimes very limited." He is much more curious about the opinions of his trio of experts.

The Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe - the priest Moodysson's team recruited to sample his work - proclaims that Container is a religious movie. "God is in all of this," he declares. "God is in this confused mêlée of internal thoughts and external symbols." The psychoanalyst, Andrea Sabbadini, sounds equally intrigued by Moodysson's opus, even if he can't help pointing out certain "megalomaniacal" tendencies he sees in the director. The psychic, Philena Bruce, meanwhile, becomes very distressed as she talks with Moodysson about a young woman who committed suicide.

Outside Mel Gibson, few film-makers are prepared to reveal that they are religious. Moodysson freely admits that he "believes in God" and that his work is "fundamentally based on my religious belief".

"What priests say about my work is very, very important for me. I believe that priests deal on a daily basis with life and death. I don't always agree with their opinions but I find them always interesting. I am much more interested in reactions from priests, or psychics [than critics]," he says. In times of crisis or joy, Moodysson points out, his fellow Swedes invariably turn to the Church. By way of example, he cites what happened when the Estonia ferry sank, in 1994, with the loss of more than 800 lives. "The churches filled up," he says. "They were just filled with people. When life is really on the edge, then you go to church. I try to make films that are on the edge."

To appreciate Container, he argues, you need to devote some time to it. "You can't really get the film into your head by seeing it once. You have to see it seven times," he says, without any hint that he is joking.

Container has 21 interlinking stories that are impossible to unweave, at least on initial viewing. "Container is a very complicated film," he admits. "If you just see it as someone babbling, maybe it's not very interesting, but if you really look carefully, it's something else."

As for the way the monologue veers between Hello!-style gossip about stars and ruminations on Chernobyl, he suggests that this is just the way that many people experience life through the endless din of the media. The tragic and the trivial exist side by side - and some struggle to distinguish between them.

"I've met some people in my life who have difficulty navigating in life because they don't know how to protect themselves from everything flying in their direction. I think it is very interesting to think what happens if you don't have any defence system at all", Moodysson says of the way Malone's voice-over leaps from celebrity divorce to the crisis in Sudan. "If you're not able to choose, everything flows into you like a big wave."

If you're prepared to give Moodysson the indulgence he craves, Container can make for a rewarding and provocative experience. The director's problem is that there aren't many cinemagoers who will have the time or energy to watch his film seven times, or to listen to priests and doctors explaining what it may be about. Just as Jean-Luc Godard lost his mainstream audience during his Maoist phase, Moodysson risks scaring away those who relished his earlier films.

"It's for the people who want to walk with me wherever I walk," the director says, with a trace of egotism. "Unfortunately, most of the people involved in the film business are not interested in taking those walks."

Most Moodysson enthusiasts will be heartened to learn that he is currently at work on "a much, much more normal film" with a straightforward narrative. "I don't think I will make a film like Container again but this was my one attempt at trying to tell everything at the same time.

In the future, if Moodysson lives up to Bergman's predictions and emerges as one of the major European film-makers of his generation, Container is likely to be regarded as a strange but illuminating diversion. It's his most personal film, but not even the priests or psychics can make that much sense out of it.

"I am very happy with the film and I love it very much, but it's very difficult." Moodysson sighs. "But that's just because life is very difficult."

'Container' is out now on DVD in a special edition that includes 'Inside The Container Crypt'

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