Review: Donner - Private
by Marta Bałaga
- John Webster’s film, which won the Finnish Competition at the Helsinki-based DocPoint, tries to look beyond the “arrogant, self-centred bastard”. Their words, not ours
The concept of the “final interview” might be almost overly familiar, but it's still tricky, based on some sort of assumption that a full lifetime can really fit into one conversation. Conducted with a starry-eyed stranger, more often than not, it pushes for a neat resolution, some spring cleaning, a summary of an existence preferably clocking in at under two hours. In the DocPoint winner Donner – Private, John Webster acknowledges the constraints: he fast-forwards through his protagonist's childhood snaps, public appearances and then Jörn Donner's very own photographs like it's Pixar's Up once again, with the whole life pretty much flashing before one's eyes before the story even begins. Once that's done, it's time to sit back and relax, bringing out a much gentler side to the Finnish director, writer, politician – you name it – so devoted to the persona of an “arrogant, self-centred bastard” that it has turned into its own entity.
But people do mellow with time, after all, and Donner was clearly aware that not much of it was left while filming – he passed away in January 2020. And so he reflects away, led by questions reportedly inspired by his own chat with Bergman, admitting to getting to know Visconti “just like that, with no press agents” or confessing his sins, be they a spotty parental record or the fact that even when he made films, “it was never at 100%”. Save for an odd moment of televised glory – when he accepted the Academy Award for Fanny and Alexander as its producer – it quickly becomes clear that this one goes out to the people who already know his work or his acerbic comments, arguably limiting its appeal beyond the Nordic region. It's not an introduction to Donner, not at all, but a re-introduction of sorts, Gwen Stefani-style: as if someone so intent on not letting his real personality slip suddenly wanted it all out.
Or at least some version of it, as this interview could just as well be Donner's last joke, played on the unsuspecting crew that relies on the “spontaneous” backstage material a little too much – although his hatred for the clapperboard is certainly amusing. It's a shame that the film doesn't provide more, cinematically speaking, as looking at photos, however rare, is generally a trying experience, even with an added-on soundtrack and inspiring descriptions like: “Woman and goat, living together.” They do seem happy, however.
Webster, though arguably quite smitten with the old trickster, adds other voices, and it's a welcome move. Summer with Monika's Harriet Andersson speaks out, rather warmly, echoing one website's call to “never be ashamed of having a crush on Jörn Donner”. But so does his son, who has never really felt welcomed, all too familiar with his father's preferred language, which he calls “the language of rejection”. Still, it's telling that none of the past mistakes seem to hurt as much as the slow realisation that from a rebel without a cause, one eventually turns into a member of the old guard, and a patriarchal one at that. “I sometimes wonder if I am anything at all,” Donner says here, but even if he really was a “95 percenter”, that sounds way too coy to convince. Then again, one kind of flirtation is to boast that we never flirt.
Donner – Private was produced by Finland’s Bufo.
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