BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 27, 2011
A Somewhat Gentle Man
Stellan Skarsgård is unique. He is a truly distinguished actor with a truly undistinguished face. The first time we glimpse him, we think, “Shucks, a crew member didn’t get away in time.” But as he persists in being on screen and doing things, his acting begins to have something of the same effect as Dreiser’s prose—certainly inelegant, equally certainly art.
This Swedish actor has appeared in films of various countries, but he says that he feels most kinship with the Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland. I have seen one of their pictures, Aberdeen, a nicely taut domestic drama set in England and Scotland. Their latest collaboration is A Somewhat Gentle Man, which gives Skarsgård a more gritty role.
The place is Norway. (Does he speak Norwegian with a Swedish accent? No one mentions it.) The first shot is a close-up of him confronting the gate of a prison. He has spent twelve years there for a murder, and he has not been a troublesome prisoner. A guard, very friendly, hands him a bottle as he leaves and urges him to go forward, forward. Thus the first minutes give us a man who has committed murder and has earned the affection of his guards. The person he murdered (we learn) was his wife’s lover, so we are apparently expected to “understand.” He is a man who is generally gentle but occasionally arousable.
The screenplay, by Kim Fupz Aakeson, seems homegrown, the product of its setting. It is snowy winter throughout, and even without storm scenes, survival for people seems a daily victory over living conditions. Ulrik, Skarsgård’s character, has been an auto mechanic and, through a friend, is soon back at work in a garage. But it isn’t just the manual labor that fixes the picture’s tone. Moland’s pace, the general vocal level, the sense that Ulrik is living his life like a worker on an assembly line who has to take what comes along—life is what happens to you, not what you strive for—soon set the picture’s key.
Yet a lurid story is rooted in this gray environment. The man who helps get Ulrik his job is a local crime boss named Jensen. Ulrik, who had once been involved with Jensen, is in debt to him because Jensen supported Ulrik’s wife and son while he was in prison. The wife is gone, the son is now a man with a pregnant girlfriend, and Jensen wants a considerable return favor from Ulrik. A snitch was responsible for Ulrik’s arrest and has also injured Jensen. Jensen wants Ulrik to kill him.
Any fear that we are going to see one more version of the ex-con who tries to go straight but is sucked back into the shadows is allayed by the very texture of the picture. Moland creates a stratum of society whose humdrum quality makes the possibility of crime seem veristic, not plotty. Moland’s picture is much more a social struggle than a moralistic one.
Part of that social fabric is the temper of Ulrik’s sex life. He rents a dingy room where his leathery, barking landlady supplies him with dismal meals and soon demands sex. With as complete a lack of interest as is possible, he complies several times. Then, in the office of the garage where he works, there is a young woman whom he rescues from her abusive husband and who, in time, shows her gratitude—dangerously.
Though these events are necessary to keep the picture mobile, the real subject is the vacancy, the feeble hopes within Ulrik. Mixed in, too, are his feelings about the birth of his grandson. Climaxes arrive, impressed by Jensen. In the final shot, which is drastically final, we see Ulrik smiling, along with another man who also is smiling though he doesn’t know Ulrik’s reason.
Skarsgård understands and completes Ulrik. His acting is in primary colors, not facile but winningly declarative. Everyone else in the cast works in a more or less similar style. Moland is such a competent director that it takes a while to see how comprehending he is.
A Korean film called The Housemaid is a remake of a successful 1960s Korean film of the same name. I don’t know the earlier one so cannot say whether it employed the same strategy as the remake. The new director, Im Sang-soo, has treated the story—which is essentially a nineteenth-century melodrama about a working girl at the mercy of her employer—with almost shocking modern vigor, sharp and surprising visuals, and carefully designed acting, all of which hustle the story out of a theater warehouse into modern pertinence.
The design of the film is unusually instrumental. The Housemaid is, in effect, as much about the house as the maid. Most of it takes place in an immense mansion—on the outskirts of Seoul, we assume—and the character of the place affects our view of what happens in it. The designer, Lee Ha-jun, has created a huge residence that is so geometrically gaunt, so economically yet smartly furnished, that the place where things happen seems to make the story modern and cool. Im has done a lot of vertical shooting, pulling straight up from scenes or straight down on them in a way that seems to enlarge the already large space in this haughty white palace.
The maid is Eun-yi, a young woman who is working in a cheap restaurant when we meet her. (Most of the shop signs in the street outside are in English.) She is engaged by a middle-aged housekeeper to become a maid in the home of a young multimillionaire, engaged not only because she is presentable but because she has had some college education. Also, she is a divorcee, which for some reason—later clarified—strikes the housekeeper as a plus.
In the mansion, appropriately uniformed, Eun-yi soon meets the young master, his wife—very pregnant with twins—and their daughter, about eight. The maid and the child get on from the first, the wife plays her queenly role somewhat consciously, the master moves through for a while like a habituated lord. Just occasionally we get a quick glance from him to the maid that heralds the approach of drama.
The moment comes when, after a few days, the master enters the maid’s room. More such moments occur, almost as if she expected them. The sex is frankly shown, perhaps as a further attempt to modernize the story. (Presumably this is why the maid’s previous marital experience was a plus.) Eventually, despite several sorts of precaution, she becomes pregnant. The consequences are all predictable—various angers, attempts to buy the maid’s silence and departure, recrimination. The ending echoes an event we saw at the very start, and that ending is followed by an ironic epilogue.
Im’s direction reflects worthy masters: he is clearly up-to-stylistic-date. The two principal performances, master and maid, are so straightforward, clean, almost balletic in their physical wholeness, that they seem destined to fulfill their fates.
Now I have another reason to be glad I don’t watch soap operas. A film called Every Day was made by a man who works on a well-known television series—this is his first feature—and several commentators have said that they could see the way it had been shaped by soapy formula: a family saga with evenly paced climaxes and moments for commercial inserts. I was free of these preconceptions, not only through ignorance of the alleged model but because I had my own references. Besides the infinite line of Hollywood family films that wind back past Mickey Rooney and Lewis Stone, I sensed reminders of a Hungarian film, seen some fifteen years ago, called Love, Mother. (The mother in the film thus signed the notes she left for the family on the refrigerator.) The Hungarian director was not a television figure, and of course his film has no connection with this new one. But both pictures sustain the one-hundred-fifty-year-old line of domestic drama, the drama that invites us into the home of seemingly average people with unusual troubles that often turn out to be not all that unusual.
Every Day says so disarmingly with its title. Here is a fairly prosperous middle-class suburban American home—New York, presumably—dad, mom, boys of fifteen and twelve, to which mom is bringing her invalided old father. Two points are notable in this homey interior. First, the older boy is gay and the parents know it and accept it—not a new idea in film, but still their acceptance is cheering. Second, the dad isn’t in a conventional job; he’s a staff writer on a soap opera. When we go with him to staff story conferences—that story of course has nothing to do with the film—it’s like getting a lesson in gynecology and obstetrics while watching an actual birth.
The writer-director is Richard Levine, who is smart. The dialogue is turned just well enough that it seems to come from the characters, not supplied by writers. The action flows comfortably, with two bumps. Twice Levine uses heavy-handed intercutting. In one of them the fifteen-year-old is dancing hotly with an older boy while we get glimpses of his father warming up to a sexy woman. In another the younger boy is with his ailing grandfather while elsewhere in the house his parents are having sex. Both intercuttings seem italicized.
Anyway, what insures the film is, once again, the level of the acting. Liev Schreiber plays the dad, and not only is he very easily authentic, he makes us further aware of the Schreiber range. (For instance, he was one of the two outlaw-heroes in Defiance.) Helen Hunt is exactly right as a wife who was in love with her husband and would rather like to be so again. The two boys, Ezra Miller and Skyler Fortgang, seem absolutely uncoached. Eddie Izzard, the English comic, is astringent as dad’s boss. A special nugget is Brian Dennehy as the old man embittered by his wheelchaired old age who manages to make his dolor a touch comic. (“I’m still alive, goddamn it.”) All of them make Every Day a film above the ordinary by doing the (basically) ordinary in very appealing style.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article ran in the February 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.