Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rants on Twist and Shout

Netflix is great at a lot of things--providing multitudes of little-seen films I would never have access to in Michigan, for one--but something they could vastly improve on is their synopsis writing. Sometimes the summary is so off from the actual film it makes you wonder if whoever wrote it had actually seen the film before writing on it. There are numerous examples of this but the most obvious misrepresentation I've run across is Twist and Shout, a 1984 film from famed director (and two-time Palme d'Or winner) Bille August. Netflix actually recommended the film to me, most likely since I've been overdosing on 1960's and 1960s-set cinema since I started Netflix. As it was a "sexy coming-of-age story" with teenagers whose "libidious passions explode," I simply knew I had to add it to my queue for future watching. I mean, the description made it sound like Skins crossed with The Dreamers, so you can hardly blame me. But when I started watching the film, I was shocked to discover that what sounded like a Scandinavian soft-core porn was actually an arresting, heartbreaking, emotionally complicated look at teenage relationships, both romantic and platonic. The relationships in question, the friendship between Bjorn (Adam Tonsberg) and Erik (Lars Simonsen), Bjorn's romantic escapades with Anna (Camilla Soeberg) and Kirsten (Ulrikke Bondo) and Erik's infatuation with Kirsten, sound like the typical set-up for your average episode of Gossip Girl (minus Blair Waldorf's constant scheming, natch), but August and Twist and Shout are more interested in exploring character and mining emotional depth from well-worn plots rather than trying to shake things up through big dramatic twists.

One of the very first images we see of Bjorn and Erik is this still above. The two are in the back of a truck, obviously running away from something. This opening moment raises a lot of questions: But what are the running from? And what exactly is their relationship with each other? Based on my experience with numerous films that feature a scene like this, I got it into my head that this was going to be a film about young gay lovers who were unaccepted by their families and society and, pushed to the breaking point, decide to flee society with only the clothes on their back and each other. Clearly, there's a whole backstory attached to this pose courtesy of other films and I spent the first ten minutes of the film reading into every look given by each boy to support this hypothesis. The whole gay lovers angle is revealed to be nothing more than a load of bollocks, for Twist and Shout wants to discuss something even rarer: the emotional bond between two platonic male friends. There are plenty of films about male/male friendships but they often stop short at exploring the emotional side of the relationship. Twist and Shout, without a second thought, enters the rarely chartered territory of how much of themselves men are allowed to expose to other men. But the relationship between Bjorn and Erik doesn't descend into sappy, "chick flick" clichés about bonding and true friendships. Their connection is often felt in moments where they simply react to each other and their shared surroundings. Erik's mother is mentally ill so, as a way of dealing with it, his father locks her up in the house and treats her as if she's an embarrassing family secret. Bjorn is privileged to know the truth about her and treats the information as delicately as Erik does, even if Bjorn realizes that there is something wrong with the situation in Erik's home. For example, Erik and Kirsten walk home together and she becomes insistent on entering his house. She knows about his sick mother from Bjorn and when he asks her how much she knows, she admits that all he told her was that she spends most of her time in bed. For a second, Erik is relieved that she (1) doesn't really know anything and (2) Bjorn hasn't betrayed him. Instead of ignoring the problem, or acting uncomfortable when the situation comes up, Bjorn is almost delighted that Erik trusts him enough to come in and have a cup of tea with his mother.

Bjorn and Erik, despite--or maybe because of--their close friendship, truly are complete opposites and the film shows them as such. Their first real scene together is at some concert where a local band is playing a cover of The Beatles' "Twist and Shout." Bjorn is front and center, rocking out and enjoying himself dancing. Erik, on the other hand, is pacing back and forth in front of the door, covering his ears, clearly waiting for the first available moment to get the hell out of there. The blocking and costuming certainly help in figuring out these characters as well: Bjorn is in a medium shot wearing a bright red coat while Erik is dressed in tan, fading into the background in a long shot.

The fact that Erik has a hard time standing out is repeated visually throughout the film. When Kirsten has a party at her house with all of her classmates, Erik tries to get a good look at her but his face is lost in a sea of people. Even when August gives him a close up, he has to fight other people in the frame to be noticed. Erik's desire to be noticed, especially by Kirsten, forces him to resort to what many people, including Bjorn, consider public humiliation. At this party, Bjorn has brought his new girlfriend, Anna, much to the dismay of Kirsten who is madly in love with Bjorn. When she confronts him about it, after everyone agreed that this was "classmates only" party, Bjorn suggests she go with Erik. She scoffs at this suggestion, openly insulting him and his screwy family just as he enters the room. As Bjorn storms off in a huff, he insists that Erik comes with him and Anna as he's been humiliated in front of everyone. Erik, rather, wants to go back into the party, clearly ignoring the fact that Kirsten doesn't want anything to do with him and insisting that it was Bjorn who was clearly at fault. Bjorn doesn't understand Erik's viewpoint, but the great thing about their relationship is that this is not a dealbreaker for either of them. They can love and cherish each other without understanding each other's logic at certain times.

One of the things Twist and Shout absolutely nails is its depiction of teenage romances and sexuality. Instead of presenting unrealistic, Gossip Girl-esque, "we're-18-and-having-hot-and-steamy-sex-to-make-up-for-our-relationship-getting-stale-three-weeks-in" viewpoint, Twist and Shout shows the red-blooded immediacy of young relationships without concentrating on what goes on in the bedroom. Bjorn and Anna fall head over heels for each other in the matter of a single date, to the point where Bjorn's thoughts all revolve around Anna almost immediately. They spend every waking moment together and when she must leave for three days for a family event, it's the end of the world for Bjorn. From the way he reacts, you would think she was moving to Siberia for a decade. He has all these all-consuming fantasies that other men are lusting after her and she is obliging, at first raising her skirt a little but eventually performing a whole burlesque routine reminiscent of a Rob Marshall film. These fantasies cripple Bjorn for the three days she's away as she has quickly become his center of the universe. Then there's Erik, who isn't in a relationship with Kirsten but still can't get her out of his head. She becomes a sort of escape fantasy for Erik from his humdrum life taking care of his mother and quietly avoiding his father. Unlike the Netflix summary suggests, Twist and Shout is not chock-full of sex scenes. There is only one to speak of and it's hardly the erotic moment you have been led to believe. The scene involves Bjorn and Anna and is more sensual than sexy, more tender than sappy and, ultimately, more realistic than many overblown representations of teenage sex. What is so fascinating about the scene, however, is the transition between it and the next scene. Bjorn and Anna are seen embracing, whether this is pre- or post-coitus we do not know but they obviously with hanky panky on the mind, and the shot dissolves slowly to show Erik slowly caressing a hat Kirsten left at his house after her one visit. Erik eventually lifts it up to his nose, inhaling the scent of Kirsten. The moment on it's own is a bit stalkerish, but connected to the sex scene through a dissolve gives it a whole new sexual connotation and serves as a sad reminder to Erik of what he doesn't have.

The power of Twist and Shout lies in the fact that the film starts off as a broad ode to the days of Beatlemania and eventually becomes this complex study of human emotions. You don't even realize how drawn into the film you are until it's far too late to take yourself out of the film. While Bjorn's relationship with Anna takes an unexpected tumble after a catastrophic event, he winds up with Kirsten, obviously looking for a way to ease his suffering but he eventually ends up in too deep with the relationship. When the two of them become engaged, Bjorn can't even verbalize it to his family. When Bjorn takes Kirsten out on dates, he takes Erik along so he doesn't have to spend alone time with her. As Bjorn is dealing with this, however, things have taken an even darker turn at Erik's house. While the film at first positions Erik's father as a saint for dealing with his wife's illness when she breaks a glass early in the film, the "something off" Bjorn notices quickly rears its ugly head. Erik, based on Bjorn's advice, has started taking his mother out of the house in the hopes that she'll start to feel better. The result is definitely positive; she's not exactly cured but she at least becomes coherent to what is going on around her. The father soon realizes this and takes measures to put a stop to it. In private conversations where he literally shuts the mother out of the room, he clues in Erik as to the cause of her mental problems: first, the cause is "unusual" literature and second is post-partum depression. The story switches so often, and with such alarming drasticness, we begin to wonder whether either of these stories is the answer or if one even exists. As the film progresses, Erik's house slowly becomes colder and creepier, to the point where it's reminiscent of the house in Cries and Whispers. And, at a certain point, these scenes do become a sort of gothic horror movie. A desperate Erik, after his mother gets worse under his father's strict, doctor-free care, makes a late night call to his grandmother to get help. We see dark shadows and figures over his shoulder as he makes the call, but we have no idea what is behind him. His mother? His father? Nothing? Eventually, his father does catch him in the act and it slowly becomes apparent to both us and Erik that he's the real villain in this piece. Later on in the film, as Erik rebels against his father's punishment, Erik's father cuts off a speech from Erik about him not having a childhood with the line, "Don't behave like a child." This line becomes ironic since throughout the rest of the film, whenever Erik encountered his father, he regressed back into an infant under his stern control. This is the first time he's asserted himself and sets the film up for a highly emotional finale.

The title, Twist and Shout, obviously refers to The Beatles song of the same name which permeates the film but it could also be seen as a way of describing the main characters. If Bjorn is the jubiliant, expressive "Shout," then Erik is the uncomfortable, hunched "Twist" and both Tonsberg and Simonsen embody these characteristics flawlessly. It's not surprising that Simonsen, playing Erik, is the character I responded to the most as he is the Emotionally Damaged Boy of this movie and to see him so fully craft everything from his stuttering line delivery to his slouched-over body language makes me wish that Efron had done as much work in Charlie St. Cloud. And Tonsberg is very adept at handling the transition of Bjorn from love struck puppy to emotionally drained vacuum. But their best work often comes when they are together and a whole language between them is spoken in tiny looks and gestures. This is the mark of a true friendship and one of the many fine details of life Twist and Shout manages to convey. A


Vera said...

I assume that you know that Twist and Shout is a sequal to a good film called Zappa? When I bought this years ago both films were on the same disc.

Dame James said...

I only heard about Zappa after I watched Twist and Shout and did some more research about it. The DVD edition I had didn't include them both on the same disc. I've heard Zappa is quite darker but I'll definitely be catching it soon!

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