Brink of Life: sympathetic and unromantic 1950’s investigation of pregnancy and childbirth

Ingmar Bergman, “Brink of Life” (1958)

Even in these supposedly more “liberal” times when no topic seems taboo to speak about openly, a director, male or female, would need to be very brave to tackle the subject of childbirth, miscarriage, unwanted pregnancy and stillbirth in the same feature film. Imagine then that over half a century ago, when it was rare for Hollywood even to show a married couple in bed together, a director did precisely just that: make a movie about childbirth and pregnancy that didn’t romanticise the phenomena but instead portrayed them as painful and ghastly and a part of human suffering. The film is “Brink of Life” and it was made by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, following soon after he made “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries

Revolving around three women patients thrown together in a room in a maternity hospital, the movie has an ordinary look and its focus is small and intimate: the camera limits itself to the three women’s ward, the corridor immediately outside and a few other rooms. The entire film hangs on the performances of the actors playing the three women Cecelia (Ingrid Thulin), Stina (Eva Dahlbeck) and Hjordis (Bibi Andersson); fortunately all three actors rise to the challenge of playing characters undergoing their own personal crises connected with their pregnancies and all give outstanding performances. Cecelia has a miscarriage and tries to explain it away as evidence of her husband’s lack of love for her and the unborn child: she decides that they should get a divorce. Hjordis is a young unmarried girl rejected by her lover for falling pregnant; having had an abortion before, she now wants to keep the baby but is frightened that her parents will turn her away. Stina is looking forward to seeing her new baby and when her husband (Max von Sydow) visits, they make plans about what cot the child will sleep in. The birth turns out to be difficult and ends badly; the doctors are unable to explain why and how it went wrong

Each of the lead actors makes the most of her role in one scene or a few: Thulin in particular gives a wrenching performance early on when, delirious from the anaesthetic, she raves to Nurse Brita (Barbro Hiort af Ornas) about the lack of love in her marriage, her own personal inadequacies and how these affected the pregnancy. The camera focusses closely on Thulin’s face, in intense psychological pain, and, like the nurse, the viewer feels trapped yet compelled to listen. Dahlbeck has her moment when Stina goes into labour and suffers pain and panic as the baby gets stuck; the acting looks so realistic and is heart-rending to watch as doctors and nurses scurry about helplessly. Andersson perhaps steals the film from Thulin and Dahlbeck in her portrayal of Hjordis: young and not a little rebellious, yet unsure about her future and the baby’s, she has no monologues but her telephone scenes and the dialogues she has with Cecelia, Nurse Brita and a counsellor reveal a great deal about Hjordis’s background and inner turmoil about her relationships with her lover and family.

Of the support cast, Hiort af Ornas as Nurse Brita is excellent, having to be confidant to the patients in her charge as well as the authoritative head nurse giving orders, yet never really succeeding in giving the patients the psychological comfort they need and just mouthing platitudes about the joys of motherhood. Erland Josephsson, playing Cecelia’s husband, makes the most of his limited time portraying a man completely out of his depth in trying to help his wife come to terms with her miscarriage. Generally all male characters in “Brink of Life” seem self-centred and lack understanding and sympathy for the psychological and emotional issues that arise for women experiencing pain and uncertainty in a major life-changing event; they approach such problems with rationalistic views or science and technology which in the movie end up failing them. The nurses, Nurse Brita included, go about their duties quietly and efficiently but always defer to the men and their science. The hospital is revealed as remote and clinical in its culture, its staff narrowly focussed on getting results and churning through patients and babies: it’s, well, an inhospitable place. Towards the film’s end, Inga Landgre nearly sweeps away the other female actors’ thunder in a very brief but impressively forceful appearance as sister-in-law to Cecilia, urging her to give her marriage another chance

Limited to a small set of rooms, the film has a trapped, claustrophobic quality; the crying of newborn babies and the patients’ own limited movements reinforce the claustrophobia. The small scale of the movie is such that it begins with Cecelia being admitted to hospital and, in a terrifying scene, stranded in a room by herself while her foetus dies; the movie ends with Hjordis discharging herself from hospital, separating from the other two women with whom she has shared several details about herself so viewers never know if Cecilia and her husband will reconcile, or how Stina will react to news of her baby’s death. The film sometimes has the look of a play – if it had been made in the present day, it might be expected to look more like a documentary taking place in an actual hospital with improvised acting – and most of the acting does have a staged quality. Some of the dialogue that Hjordis has in expressing her ambivalence about pregnancy and looking after a baby to Nurse Brita touches on issues of human suffering which may strike some viewers as rather deep and intense for a young girl of a working-class background to express. The very ordinary, almost sterile look of the film may not win it any technical accolades but it does concentrate the attention on the actors and their lean dialogue

The premise of throwing together three women representing different social classes in the one ward hardly seems credible and the plot doesn’t explore the women’s social differences and how these might influence their attitudes to pregnancy and childbirth, and to one another. Hjordis’s social background helps to round out her character and fears about her pregnancy and what she believes will be her family’s reaction to the unexpected pregnancy but the other two women’s backgrounds seem irrelevant to their character development and the plot’s workings. At least the hospital staff treat the three women equally (as in equally coldly and unsympathetically) regardless of their social class. The film’s overall message seems to be that human existence can be grim, people don’t always live up to their potential as full human beings and provide the support women and babies need, and mothers must make the best of whatever difficult situations they find themselves in: a fairly trite message.

In spite of its limitations, “Brink of Life” is worthwhile watching for the performances given and for a complex and sympathetic view of pregnancy and childbirth in a context that should give care and support to women who need both but treats pregnancy and childbirth as strictly technical medical conditions.

Metropia: dystopian science fiction animated film offers little that’s fresh

Tarik Saleh, “Metropia” (2009)

Set in a future post-apocalyptic Europe in 2024, where all underground train networks in the different countries have been unified in one giant Metro system, “Metropia” is a dark dystopian animated spy / noir film that explores paranoia, mind control through an ingenious nanotechnology and secret corporation conspiracies to dominate society and profit from exploiting its citizens through consumer products and entertainment. The type of animation used is a computerised photomontage technique that exaggerates characters’ heads and faces over their bodies. Faces have minimal expressions, eyes barely blink and even lips barely move when speaking. One such affected character is typical worker bee Roger Olsson (voiced by Vince Gallo) who works in a call centre: he’s a frail, skinny guy with a young, smooth face whose main emotion is worry, indicated by slight creases in his forehead and eyebrows. He certainly has reason to frown as he believes society is somehow against him, to the extent that he’d rather cycle every day between his dreary, grey workplace and his equally dreary, rundown apartment that he shares with his girlfriend, than catch the trains. His paranoia increases when he starts hearing strange voices in his head and he struggles between dismissing them as delusions and wondering if they are in fact real. One day his bike is stolen so he has to use the metro and while travelling down the escalator to the platforms, he spies a beautiful blonde woman (voice: Juliette Lewis) who he recognises as the actor spruiking a brand of shampoo made and marketed by the giant Trexx Corporation which rules all of Europe. He decides to follow the woman on the trains, the woman becomes aware of his presence but allows him to follow her …

So begins an odyssey through a huge, grimy underground labyrinth of tunnels and corporation secrets, the result of which Roger realises the voices in his head are not only real but have been placed there to govern his thoughts and actions. The conspiracy is for real and the film spends its leisurely time detailing it: the plot appears to be complicated but by the end of the film, it’s not so convoluted after all and even has a little ingenious twist that absolves Roger of any crime he might have committed. Due perhaps to the limitations of the animation technique, there isn’t a lot of physical action: characters walk when perhaps they should run or jump and much of the darkness and shadowy quality of the film exists to cover over the animation problems, especially where a character might look unrealistic doing something. The focus is on close-ups of characters’ faces, eyes and expressions so viewers are likely to be disappointed that people’s facial and mouth movements turn out to be so minimal. I wonder why the particular animation method, in which photos of real people were taken and then manipulated by computer, is used here: with the emphasis thrown onto characters’ faces, together with the unrelenting bleakness of their environment, dialogue becomes important in pushing the plot but because it is about a conspiracy, characters must speak obliquely, dish out information in dollops and maintain poker-faces throughout. Viewers have to work out what is actually being said, if it’s a clue to the mystery, if it gives any background to Roger and Nina the blonde woman. The effect is to distance viewers from feeling any sympathy for these two characters who remain resolutely one-dimensional as they descend deeper into the conspiracy and get closer to its core.

The environment in which they move in is strange and not something viewers can relate to: Europe has always been distinctive for its man-made environments which imply large bustling, vibrant crowds, a deep history and distinctive cultures. The Europe of “Metropia”, even its Paris, seems mostly abandoned by people and bare of any culture except the very kitsch. Admittedly most activity takes place at night or in underground places where few people go anyway but viewers would expect that even there, Roger would meet various beggars living in and around the metro networks who in themselves would be a comment and a criticism of the society that produced them.

Aside from the animation which can be awe-inspiring, especially in scenes where the “camera” pulls back to show scenes of the devastated urban environment or the explosions that occur at the Trexx Corporation offices, the film sticks to a spy / noir story type. There’s the mysterious blonde woman with hidden secrets who befriends Roger; Roger is attacked by security guard thugs at the start of his investigations; a minor character (Alexander Skarsgård) who passes on some useful information to Roger and warns him of danger ends up dying violently; and there are two, maybe even three, climaxes in the film coming fairly close together. What could have been the film’s real strength if director Tarik Saleh had thought to emphasise it, is that Roger turns out to be a pawn in a banal family dispute, the nature of which is never clear but is sure to have major political and social consequences. The Corporation is a virtual monarchy and, like all monarchies, subject to family intrigues and disloyalties: the CEO Ivan Bahn (Udo Kier) and his right-hand man Parker (Stellan Skarsgård), both at the centre of the conspiracy, realise too late their most dangerous enemy is Bahn’s child and heir. While Roger might be lucky to pick up his old life again, the Corporation continues on, perhaps initiating new forms of mind control and mass entertainment under the new CEO and not learning any lessons from the power struggle until a new generation of Bahn heirs wants to take over. All that might be needed would be a brief voice-over narration from Roger at the end, wondering at what will happen after Bahn’s gone, whether the Corporation will continue selling its mind control products or allow the people in the united Europe more freedom in their daily lives and some say in their government.

As it is, “Metropia” is an interesting warning at what Europe might become and look like as a poverty-stricken unified state. It offers little that’s new and fresh in plot and genre exploration. The political message is undeveloped at the film’s end but there is always the possibility of a sequel that will pick up where “Metropia” ends and explore the politics of the Corporation. People with experience of living in Communist states are sure to have feelings of deja-vu when they see the buildings where people live and work and the cramped, crumbling apartment where Roger lives. The animation technique does have definite limitations in telling this particular kind of spy / noir story where characters’ expressions and minimal dialogue become more important than the actual plot and could have been augmented with voice-over narration and various visual and audio special effects at particular points in the story to add drama and tension.

Let the Right One In: first, the Swedish version is allowed in

Tomas Alfredsson, “Let the Right One In” (2008)

Often when a novel is translated to the screen, the result is a superficial imitation of the printed word: the novel has an extra aspect or sub-plot that can’t be translated successfully to screen. In the case of the vampire novel “Let the Right One In”, about 30% of the book didn’t make it to film and I’m happy that it didn’t because most of what John Ajvide Lindquist left out – he wrote the screenplay based on his novel – is a trashy, gory sub-plot in which a minor character becomes a rampaging zombie. Stripped of this sub-plot and with another sub-plot considerably trimmed down, the movie becomes a concentrated and subtle investigation of pre-adolescent angst and alienation within the vampire horror sub-genre.

The plot revolves around a young boy, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), bullied at school by his class-mates and unwilling to fight back yet seething with inner rage at his tormenters: in the evenings when he’s home from school, he reads up on serial killers and broods over his knife collection. He and his mother live in a dreary set of flats in a generic suburb of Stockholm. One night, two new people move in next door to their unit. These mysterious new neighbours keep to themselves: they don’t even change the window blinds every morning and every evening, let alone meet and greet the other tenants.

Until one evening when Oskar is loitering in the playground: one of the two new people, Eli (Linda Leandersson), a girl about his age, joins him on the playground equipment. Strangely, though snow is all around them and the temperature must be below zero Centigrade, Eli is very lightly dressed. Although she advises Oskar that they can’t be friends, over several similar evening meetings they bond and form a friendship of sorts. In the meantime, Eli’s companion Hakan (Per Ragnar) tries to obtain blood for Eli -yep, she’s a bloodsucker – he manages to kill someone but is interrupted while trying to milk the corpse for blood and he is forced to flee. Eli later has to kill a man Jocke (Mikael Rohm) for blood and this sets up a sub-plot about Jocke’s friends who meet regularly at a pub.

As the movie progresses, Oskar and Eli become closer and eventually Eli starts offering advice to Oskar on how to deal with the bullies. Oskar starts working out at the local sports centre and takes up swimming lessons, eventually becoming confident enough to fight back when the bullies start abusing him again. He also discovers Eli’s true nature in scenes that can be very shocking, one of which provides the title to both the movie and the novel. The bullies aren’t happy with Oskar sticking up for himself so they lift their taunting to a more dangerous level by recruiting an older boy and plotting to lure Oskar into a trap at the swimming centre where he trains.

Meanwhile the pathetically tragicomic Hakan continues searching for more victims but ends up having to mutilate himself to avoid identification; he ends up in hospital where Eli later finds him and he ends up falling to his death. At this point the movie and the novel diverge with the novel diving into the zombie sub-plot and criss-crossing from that to Oskar and Eli’s relationship and the other sub-plot about Jocke’s friends.

Filmed mostly in a town in northern Sweden, the movie features beautiful and sometimes bright snowy landscapes which contrast sharply with the bleak lives of many characters in the movie: the minimal furnishings and buildings beloved of Ikea brochures and magazine articles on Scandinavian design and architecture look dull and banal in many scenes, and Jocke’s friends are revealed as struggling working-class people who’ve had more than their fair share of setbacks, desperation, hard times and plain bad luck. The acting comes over as minimal or matter-of-fact so that when gory or shocking events occur, they seem so much more extreme, particularly in the climactic swimming-pool scene which for many viewers will sum up everything about the movie’s style: at once sparing and restrained on the surface yet on further reflection, layered with meaning and open to many interpretations. The scene itself is set up to look beautiful, even poetic, so the sudden violence that enters is a real eye-opening shock. The camera then pans around the swimming pool in silence to reveal a boy sobbing quietly among various dismembered and bloodied remains. The equally dialogue-free denouement which follows – Oskar is travelling alone on a country train with no attendants – looks like a fantasy scene and I can well agree with one interpretation of this scene that Oskar may have actually died and is on his way to Heaven with Eli being his one faithful link back on Earth.

I can’t find much to fault about the film: the main criticism I have is that the sub-plot revolving around Jocke’s friends treats them as diversions from the main plot and could have made more of the anguish one friend feels when she discovers she has become a vampire and must decide whether to live or die. Otherwise there’s much to commend this film to the general audience and film students alike. The camerawork, using a track-mounted dolly and a fixed camera with no reliance on handheld cameras, is steady and calm and enables the use of wide tracking shots that reinforce a particular mood or emphasise an important moment or event in the plot. Such shots add to the mystery and apparent complexity of the film’s plot and themes. Hedebrant and Leanderssen work well together as Oskar and Eli and are convincing in the way they gradually build up their friendship and look out for each other despite the danger Eli must pose to Oskar. The use of voice-over and special effects for Eli’s character to demonstrate that the character is otherworldly is very subtle and believable in a world that’s otherwise bleak and mundane.

Above all, the use of the vampire horror movie sub-genre to explore subject matter that otherwise might not attract audience attention – bullying, family breakdown, pedophilia, surviving in a world that grinds you down and where your choice of friends might literally be a matter of life or death – is an original idea that has potential to reinvigorate the sub-genre itself with new life. Oskar, if he is in Heaven, would be pretty happy at that news.