Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Zappa

In Zappa, Bille August's prequel to his 1984 film Twist and Shout, young teen Bjorn (Adam Tonsberg) is facing the normal perils of adolescence, caught between his budding sexuality and navigating shaky friendships with devious juvenile delinquent Steen (Peter Reichhardt) and cherubic Mulle (Morten Hoff). The film sounds like a typical coming of age film, and for the most part it is, but as he showed in the emotionally precise Twist and Shout, August is a master of emotions who knows how to make the most banal of moments into character-defining ones. Bjorn has his first sexual experience with a girl he meets on holiday and is so elated he goes to bed early that night so that he's left to himself to rewind the moment in his head. When he goes back to find her the next morning and finds that she has gone just as suddenly as she appeared, his disappointment is palpable. He has such sympathy for these characters, even the supposed "bad" ones, that is refreshing to see in these cynical modern times.
I'm glad that August is able to garner such emotions for all the characters, but I'm not a fan of the way he got there in Zappa. Much of what made Twist and Shout such a joy to watch and reflect upon later is the way August brought up uncomfortable emotions and twisted them in unexpected ways, whether it was simply because they weren't normally discussed in films (Bjorn and Erik's relationship) or were made complicated by the narrative (Erik's relationship with his father). With Zappa, any attempt at shading the relationships is downright ignored. Bjorn commits the petty crimes he does because he wants to fit in with Steen. Mulle is over coddled at home by an attentive father trying to make up for his alcoholic mother. The most obvious example, however, lies with the character of Steen. He's a big bully with a raging temper who manipulates both Bjorn and Mulle into committing crimes of escalating violence, but, surprise, he does it all because mommy and daddy are too wrapped up in themselves and their failing marriage to care about him. As if August doesn't trust his audience enough to understand, he bludgeons us over the head repeatedly with explanatory scenes. There's a scene where Steen goes to the trouble of making a grand dinner for his mother, hoping for some affection from her. She is in awe, at first, but as soon as she discovers that he made lamb, which she can't eat because she's on a diet, she gets up and makes reservations for the two of them to eat out. I mean, honestly, couldn't we have gone without such blatant manipulation? Steen is a fascinating character in his own right and Reichhardt's interpretation really didn't need any "help" from the narrative such as this. Reichhardt's body language alone, which often casts an ominous shadow over the entire scene before a word is uttered, is as terrifying and simultaneously pitiable as any backstory August gives.
Zappa was released right before Twist and Shout and the two are supposed to go together but nothing besides two of the characters really transfer between them. Bjorn and Kirsten, who makes an appearance in Zappa as Bjorn's first crush/girlfriend, in Zappa hardly resemble the Bjorn and Kirsten in Twist and Shout. There are a few similarities, but the Bjorn and Kirsten in Zappa are empty versions of the intricate characters in Twist and Shout. Even motivations and plots don't seem to connect between the two films. By the end of Zappa, Kirsten breaks up with Bjorn but in the beginning of Twist and Shout, she seems to be attracted to him again with no explanation for her turn around. Even more confusingly, the climactic finish to Zappa that supposedly changes Bjorn's character forever makes no sense with the Bjorn we see in Twist and Shout. The fact that this really dark moment happens doesn't seem to have altered Bjorn's life in the slightest. As a coupling, these two films make no sense together. But as separate films with their own goals and merits, it's easier to appreciate what makes each film special. B

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