Lukas Moodysson: Heart of darkness

The director of Lilya 4-ever is back with another brutal tale of sexual degradation. Leslie Felperin meets Lukas Moodysson
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One often gets the impression, when talking to the film director Lukas Moodysson, that, whether he's enduring yet another interview, trudging down the street with his hood up, or even having a meal, he'd rather be somewhere else. Even when he laughs - a surprisingly high-pitched little chortle that doesn't go with his doughy, brooding features - there's a restless, detached air about him. He's a family man, and he might just be homesick for his wife and three kids back in Malmo, Sweden - four good reasons why he doesn't have much time to see other people's movies. "Watching films has been destroyed for me by making films anyway," he remarks nonchalantly at one point.

During the two days I spend with the director of such acclaimed films as Show Me Love, Together, Lilya 4-ever, and his latest feature A Hole My Heart as well as the documentary Terrorists, he wistfully lists at least three things he might have been if he hadn't started making films: a lawyer, which, with Lilya's indictment of sex-trafficking, I can easily see; a teacher, which given his skilful direction of young actors in all his films makes perfect sense; and a professional chef, which given his general grumpiness chimes perfectly.

Of course he could have just stayed a writer, having a published a well-received volume of poetry by the time he was 18 years old. But he "got bored" with writing. "Now I think I was put on this planet to make films, but I'm not sure if it's what I really want to do. Maybe it's just a misunderstanding and I should do something else instead."

About to turn 36, Moodysson seems to be becoming more, rather than less, of an enfant terrible of Swedish cinema, as his work enters ever murkier waters. The nation's greatest auteur, Ingmar Bergman, once famously described Moodysson's debut, the teen-lesbian love story Show Me Love, as "the first work of a young master."One wonders if Bergman has seen, and if so what he made of, A Hole in my Heart.

Moodysson's fourth feature is a claustrophobic study of three people (played by the writer Thorsten Flinck, the radio DJ Sanna Brading and the actor Goran Marjanovic) making an amateur porn film in a squalid flat. The director's horrified teenage-Goth son (Bjorn Almroth) lurks in a back bedroom, trying to block out the grown-ups' grunts and groans with headphones full of industrial music. Although the sex on screen is less explicit than what you'd see in an average porn movie, or even Michael Winterbottom's upcoming shag-fest, 9 Songs, A Hole in my Heart is nevertheless deeply disturbing, featuring as it does copious unexplained cutaways to open-heart surgery and cosmetic genital surgery, as well as some shock cuts of toy soldiers being crammed into a plastic vagina.

Fans of sweet Show Me Love, as well as of Moodysson's sophomore film, the 1970s-set and Abba-backed commune story Together, which is his most commercially successful film, may be bewildered that he should choose to create something even more harrowing than Lilya's dark fable about a Russian waif's entrapment in prostitution.

I think Hole is a deeply audacious, sincere and accomplished film, but it's not exactly entertaining. "No, it's not entertainment," he concedes. "I think it's quite funny in a way but I think I'm one of the few people who see that. On the other hand, I didn't see the comedy in Together, so maybe I'm strange. But it was actually the film I wanted to make before Lilya 4-ever. I think A Hole in my Heart is my best film, absolutely. It's the first time I've felt really free. Or maybe not free, but secure in what I'm doing."

I wonder how. "It's my most complex film, which is not in and of itself good but I think it goes in many different directions," he says. He pauses and collects his thoughts. "For me it's a film I can't really see objectively. I can't really see what it's about in a way. At the same time it's very specifically about the porn industry, which it criticises very much - but at the same time it defends pornography and people working in it.

"It's also a film about making films, which can be a very exploitative thing to do. There are things that the father/director says about trying to shoot the movie so that 'it will look like it's real,' which are things that I could have said in some of my worse and least intelligent moments - or even my most honest moments. And also at the same time, it's a film about a very specific and strange relationship between a father and a son, who I feel are in a way the same person just played out, not chronologically, but in a parallel way. It's like they are the same person, though one is 17 and one is 45, at the same time. And the girl who comes into the apartment is both the dead wife of the father and the mother of the boy."

Moodysson welcomes the range of responses the film invokes. "I'm just as happy with negative reactions as I am with positive reactions because I think it's a film you should react negatively to," he says. "I think it's healthy to say, 'This is not something I want to see,' and healthy to just walk out of the theatre."

An extension of the critique of masculinity in Lilya, there is a horror running through the film at men's abusive attitudes towards women, crystallised most disturbingly of all in one in a scene where the two men taunt the girl about the smell of her genitalia. "That came straight out of our research," Moodysson explains. Although he admits he learned more about sex trafficking after he made Lilya 4-ever, and that he tends to make things up in the script rather than research details, he actually took pains to interview numerous people in the porn-trade for Hole. So the rant about the smell of a girl came almost verbatim from a recorded conversation between two male porn actors. "The strange thing was, as soon as one of them left the room, the other told me that this wasn't what he felt at all," says Moodysson. "And then he came out with all this stuff about how he had been abused as a child. If I'd put that in the film exactly how it happened, people would have said it was too bizarre and implausible a leap."

If there is anything that unites the disparate features that make up Moodysson's filmography, it's their deft combination of spontaneity in the performances and exacting control in the execution, particularly in the editing. One of his key collaborators is the editor (and accomplished documentarist himself) Michal Leszczylowski, who once taught Moodysson at film school. Moodysson cites their dynamic in the editing suite as a crucial part of the process. "For me it is the most intellectual part of the film-making because I have to constantly articulate why I want this or that," he says. "Michal and I still have a relationship based on his being my teacher and me rebelling. We really fight because he's still my teacher in a way. It's a good combination."

On the other hand, despite seeming a rather shy, slightly remote guy in the flesh, Moodysson must have hidden warmths to coax the naturalistic performances that he gets on film, even from very young and inexperienced actors. "You have to learn how to deal with actors, and now, after four feature films, I think I'm finally starting to know how to do it," he sighs. "It's very difficult and very much a collaboration - for me at least. I'm not a director who likes to push them too much. This is my number one advice for aspiring directors: create a nice and friendly atmosphere. People should be kind on the set and take care of each other. Don't leave people alone. Have lots of fruit around."

He illustrates the point about watching out for your workmates by discussing the sequence in Lilya 4-ever which takes the heroine's point of view as a parade of different men have sex with her. Unlike some depictions of child abuse, the way the sequence was filmed avoided traumatising an actress and didn't even require having Oksana Akinshina, who played Lilya, on set at the time. It was the cameraman, Ulf Brantas, who had to lie down and have semi-naked men thrusting their hips at him over and over again.

"It sounds funny, but it was also very scary because here was this big, strong guy who had to lie there under those men with the camera for extended periods, " recalls Moodysson. "After a while he came to me and said, 'I'm not sure I can do those scenes anymore.' I thought he was joking. But he meant it was psychologically too difficult to have people abusing him. It really made me think about how the real Lilyas of this world feel under those men."

I remind him how, when I interviewed him years ago when Lilya 4-ever came out, he took to insisting to the press that the tragic story was actually his most hopeful and optimistic film yet because of the story's religious aspects. He still stands by that in a way, explaining that "for me it was about how can God exist in a world that is so full of hell," and goes on to assert that, "I am very much an optimist. But that doesn't necessarily mean you see the world as a good place, but that you have hope it's going to get better, that you see possibilities. I have very negative views, but I am very optimistic."

Thus, there is a streak of utopianism that also runs through all of Moodysson's films. It's off-screen, residing in the supposed freedom of a Stockholm the lovers want to escape to in Show Me Love. It's the dream of a better world that unites the commune in Together, constructs the fragile heaven in Lilya, pulls together the quasi-family in A Hole in my Heart in a womb-like space at the end, and motivates the anti-globalisation protestors Moodysson interviews for Terrorists.

"I think I've gotten very interested in people who try," he says, looking off into the distance. "I'm not so interested in people who succeed, but I'm very interested in longing and dreaming and when you want something to change. It doesn't necessarily have to change, but the wanting is important. Even just wanting to change your life."

'A Hole in my Heart' is on limited release from today