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GOCRITIC! Karlovy Vary 2018

GoCritic! Feature: 1981


- We watched the short films presented in the Future Frames programme in Karlovy Vary, and Susanne Gottlieb writes about the Swedish gay drama that blends explicit eroticism with fragile love

GoCritic! Feature: 1981

If style is a way of expressing yourself without words, then Swedish filmmaker Dawid Ullgren has a lot to say. His short film 1981, which he presented as part of the Future Frames programme — directed at promoting young filmmaking talent — at the 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF), is the latest proof of that. The film, about a homosexual couple’s experimentations in a gay sauna in 1980s Sweden, already sounds remarkable in regard to plot, but it is Ullgren’s and his DOP Josua Enblom’s mise-en-scène that truly stands out as a marker. The visual style they developed enriches the final product with much more than just providing a non-narrative film language.

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Ullgren, who has dedicated his film oeuvre to either coming-out stories or the AIDS crisis, didn’t pick the year 1981 randomly as a setting. "I wanted to place the story before the AIDS epidemic came to Sweden in 1982," he tells me at KVIFF. “In 1979, the Health and Wellness Department in Sweden had disclaimed that homosexuality was no longer a mental disorder. It was an interesting time in which the future seemed a little bit brighter." This is the set up Ullgren leaps into, stripping back layer after layer of an unknown world.

Set in the sparsely lit labyrinthine aisles of a sauna, the characters are immersed by this parallel world, glaring at each other’s bodies out of the corner of an eye, cautiously seeking sexual fulfilment in the dark junctions of the confining walls. "I wanted to make it a dark film, both in a visual and thematic way," Ullgren explains. "At that time the gay community was living in the shadows. When you were out on the streets you would be beaten up. I wanted to find a way of saying, 'We are creatures of the night'."

That point of departure sounds gloomier than Ullgren ultimately visualises it. The sombre universe that his couple, Ivar (Bengt Braskered) and Pal (Per Öhagen), navigates is interlaced with mood-setting colours: purple when they curiously pass through the narrow hallways of the winding sanctuary, orange as the men present slowly start gazing longingly at each other and first tentative contact is being made, blue as one of them follows the object of his desire to a remote part of the sauna for intercourse. The lighting employed often dips faces halfway into the shadows, or illuminate minor details that the camera focuses on.

Besides the manifold application of his colour wheel, Ullgren also arrays the film’s 1980s feel in the grainy camerawork and his play with focal lengths. Besides shifting between being in focus and out-of-focus, his gaze gets caught up in different details of the body, framing them against a soft bokeh and emphasising their sensuality in slow motion: close-ups of Ivar and Pal glancing at other men in the sauna, their gaze consuming water drops running over strong shoulder blades, fingertips stroking the skin of one’s counterpart, provoking goosebumps, accentuate the presentation of the male body in many zestful ways.

"I wanted the film to feel intimate and really sexy," Ullgren says. "I did my research on how to portray male bodies in film and how to portray female bodies on screen." While the male body is traditionally staged as strong and not moving, and the female body as subject to the male gaze of the director, Ullgren set out to turn the tables on that. "I was interested in applying my own male gaze as a male director on a male body. It was really interesting, because I never got those kinds of pictures when I was younger."

The almost fetishistic look of his character’s naked bodies, beaming from sweat and water, and his focus on the detailed close-ups of its various components also set a challenge for the film crew. During the film’s climax, in which Ivar has intercourse with young sauna patron Morgan (Razmus Nyström), Ullgren denies the viewer a long shot, instead approaching the act with several different detailed shots and thus further pushing the intimate angle of his story. In finding sexual fulfilment, the slate visuals are finally encompassed by soft bright lights, showcasing the film’s granular look in all its glory.

Ullgren recounts the process: "We shot that scene in one take repeatedly and focused on different parts of the body. The camera and the actors moved freely in the room. That way we were capturing moments that we can’t repeat, so the cinematographer and the actors needed to be in sync and the actors always in character during the scene."

Despite his style bringing so much to the table, Dawid Ullgren doesn’t expect the look to become his signature identifying feature. "I think that it could be problematic to see it in a feature-length film. In a short film you have to be really clear from the beginning and we make a stand here with a visual style that works with the film."

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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