Within the turmoil of Lukas Moodysson’s fourth feature (fifth if we count his documentary Terrorister – en film om dom dömda) the youngest member of the cast mentions a TV documentary he saw about deep sea life. He talks of the life that arises around deep sea fissures that pump out boiling water at depths where no light or heat from the sun ever penetrates. The TV show sent down submarines to observe this unique microcosm but the boy wonders, what if the light needed to observe these entities on camera, a light totally alien to them, killed them? What if, by the very nature of observing, we destroy? This little snippet of a conversation, one of many throughout A Hole in My Heart, serves as the thesis statement for Moodysson’s film; his first genuinely experimental work.
There is no real story, only a setting, and the film basically strives to capture four damaged but vibrant characters as they spend their time in a single apartment. We have Rickard; his son, Eric (who mentioned the deep sea TV show); Rikard’s friend Geko and, the sole female, Tess. Rikard, Geko and Tess are all involved in amateur pornography and that is their reason for gathering at the apartment. They are there to shoot a series of scenes involving the two men and Tess. To the side, secluded in his own room, sits Rikard’s 17 year old son, Eric. The group live in squalor, chat and fight among themselves and throughout the course of the film we see various facets of the characters emerge. All this is shot with handheld cameras with a gonzo style methodology of intensity and intrusion. The camera does not simply observe but lunges into the areas more conservative sections of the audience might wish had been left alone. The events themselves seem to be entirely improvised with digital blurring obscuring brand names throughout and also the faces of bystanders during the few sequences that occur outside of the small apartment. The editing style is often frenetic and set to sounds, hurling imagery at the audience as we descend into the world of these men and woman.
Moodysson’s chosen technique is to try, as much as possible, to let things naturally evolve on set. There is no script and no narrative, only characters (that should intermingle with those who play them). This is the film’s most striking element and also its most challenging hurdle. It’s of little surprise that a sixteen minute ‘making of…’ feature that accompanies the film on DVD is actually just sixteen minutes of the cast arguing with Moodysson about how they’re supposed to ‘act’ until eventually the director storms out of the room. Of course it’s possible that that’s staged too. One can’t be sure. The film is certainly experimental but it also lacks real purpose or solid intent. Perhaps that’s not too surprising in a film that seeks to collapse the pretext of ‘reality’ that accompanies many features but Moodysson can’t really arrive at any conclusion either. With that in mind the audience really has to make a great leap of good faith to get to where Moodysson wants us to be.
Tess once auditioned for the Swedish Big Brother but failed to get a call back. She regrets it because she wants to be someone. For now amateur pornography will suffice. As the film progresses the ideology behind reality TV, voyeurism, pornography and “reality as filmed” all comes to the fore. The sex that is depicted within the film would appear to have been real (according to the discussion during the ‘making of…’ featurette) though still mostly shot evasively. The social contract between the two men and the woman as they engage in sex for the purposes of recording the result shifts and falters too. At one point they begin to violently threaten her and, when Eric interrupts them and Tess escapes in tears to the bathroom, they proclaim that they were simply playacting for a specific roleplaying scene. Elsewhere, Tess talks about all the possibilities of surgical enhancement open to people nowadays and of her own labial reduction surgery. This is intercut with footage of the actual procedure.
Rikard and Geko also set up air rifles and shoot empty boxes with pornographic pictures on them, demolishing the women’s breasts and genitals with pellets in an obvious nod to macho misogyny. The two men later gain depth as histories of sexual abuse and dreams of escape from current circumstances come to light. Meanwhile Eric develops mostly alone, despite the others’, admittedly often haphazard, attempts to reach out to him. He has a deformed hand, the result of a congenital defect; he keeps pet earthworms and makes robots; he listens to cacophonous industrial music and treats his bad acne. He is also, undoubtedly, the character afforded the most sympathetic voice and the character that fuels most of the more reflective passages. As Rikard’s son he is an innocent bystander and observer of the madness of the apartment and also the key to an insight into his father’s damage; the death of the matriarch.
Swedish porn actress Johanna Jussinniemi (aka Puma Swede) roundly criticised Moodysson for furthering the stereotype that all people who are involved in pornography are severely emotionally damaged. Moodysson denied the criticism, claiming that, though damaged, the characters’ raw humanity should make us love them all the more despite their flaws. It’s a fairly lofty expectation from Moodysson to expect any audience to really manage this. Yes, these characters escape the trap of being one-note, but they are still nonetheless just characters, despite the director’s best attempts to reframe perspectives through a gonzo aesthetic. Problematically for Moodysson, his attempts to question “reality” on film is hinged entirely on an unqualified presumption of gonzo aesthetics being closer to truth or allowing for more insight than other, perhaps more traditional, means. Fundamentally there’s no reason within A Hole in My Heart to buy into Moodysson’s perceptions and there’s no denying that his film is no more or less fabrication than anything that preceded it. It does successfully highlight issues of perception but largely stumbles into the same potholes as that which it seeks to criticise – to use a rough analogy of road signs, A Hole in My Heart is a little like a protest sign noting a lack of warning for a dangerous bend that’s been placed in front of and obscures the actual sign warning of that bend.
All this being the case there’s no denying that A Hole in My Heart is often fierce and potent cinema but I’d contend that it’s also basically a failure. Moodysson admits that researching and filming his earlier feature Lilja 4-ever effectively broke his positive faith in humanity. It’s understandable but A Hole in My Heart needs a more balanced starting point if it’s to be taken in good faith. For those interested in the philosophy of ‘reality’ in film and the modern conception of ‘reality TV’, Moodysson’s film is a fairly vital piece of work but it is surely only another brick in the wall rather than a great forward leap with the material. As any fan of artistic endeavours can attest, an interesting failure is often worth more than a genuine victory, but I’m undecided on the real value of Moodysson’s work here. The golden rule stands, if it sounds like something you’d like than you’re going to have to check it out for yourself.