A Swedish Love Story (En kärlekshistoria)

Sweden (1970) Dir. Roy Andersson

Ah love. According to the many who have expounded upon its virtues it is a many splendored thing, it is a battlefield, it is all you need, it will save the day, it will find a way, it changes everything, it will set you free, it will keep us together or it will tear us apart. It is also arguably the most universal facet in life so what makes A Swedish Love Story any different from say, a British one?

About to lose their hearts to cupid are fifteen year-old Pär (Rolf Sohlman) and fourteen year-old Annika (Ann-Sofie Kylin) who meet at a hospital, where Annika’s aunt Eva (Anita Lindblom) and Pär’s grandfather (Gunnar Ossiander) are both patients. On a sunny day when the two families pay a visit, the inevitable meeting happens when Pär notices Annika in the line at the hospital garden cafeteria.

Clearly smitten Pär, with the help of his friends, tracks Annika down, although it appears her big brother Roger (Tommy Nilsson) doesn’t approve. After a few false starts on both sides the young lovers eventually get together but the ride is predictably far from smooth, with the differential in social status playing a huge part in jeopardising this blossoming relationship.

So really there isn’t much difference for young love in Sweden than in the rest of the world – except that it takes place in Sweden, affording us the chance to take a look at Scandinavian society as it was in 1970. Some will find many similarities in the general mood and atmosphere of the suburban working class life as it is portrayed here – although Swedish parents in the 70’s apparently didn’t object to their teenage offspring smoking and drinking; this is probably the most alarming thing modern audiences will find here.

Despite directing films for over 45 years, Roy Andersson has a rather small catalogue to his name although he has made an impact in the world of arthouse cinema. Know for his surreal satirical works, such as You, The Living and this year’s Venice Golden Lion winning A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence, A Swedish Love Story was Andersson’s feature length debut. In comparison to his later works it is a lot more mainstream and accessible yet still demonstrates the director’s quirky absurdist take on the world.

One can see a palpable influence Andersson’s work had on the Dogme 95 filmmaking ethos in this film, most notably the cinema vérité naturalistic style and reliance on natural light as well as the acerbic, black comedy undertones. While there may not appear to be anything to groundbreaking or spectacular about this film on first glance, it slowly dawns on the viewer how it reflects a differing attitude to that of the glossy Hollywood production on the same subject.

For example, the two leads were genuinely fourteen and fifteen years old inexperienced actors while we know the US would have (and continue to do so to this day) cast two twenty-somethings. The end result, which greater benefits this film, is a raw and more believable account of this teenage love affair, free from the shackles of having to look perfect and appealing at all times.

At the risk of seeming uncharitable, Rolf Sohlman wasn’t exactly the best looking boy which would deter many a mainstream film goer from accepting him as the romantic lead. Ann-Sofie Kylin was a pretty young girl, who no doubt incurred many audience cat calls of “could do much better” than Pär – indeed she is told this by her brother – but the heart wants what it wants. Even at this young age, there is something very tender to be found in the physical interactions between the two which never go too far, but never need to – the longing looks and nervous touches say it all.

The interference of Roger leads to the first stumbling block when he beats Pär up for no reason and both his friends and Annika stand by and do nothing, leading to rejecting Annika. Of course they make up and soon its meet the parents time which is where the film forgets the main theme and focuses on the other members of the two households.  Both fathers are alpha males but in different ways – Pär‘s father Lasse (Lennart Tellfelt) runs a small garage and lives in the sticks and is your average Joe; Annika’s father John (Bertil Norström) however is a refrigerator salesman and keeps typical suited and booted highflying company.

From hereon in Anderson looks at the awkward clash of cultures with a wry eye as the smart and pinstripe suited John joins the others with a paper crayfish adorned bib at the  bucolic dinner table. It is little touches like this and the oblique but amusing denouement which set the template for the non-conformist approach Andersson would take on all of his films.

While this trait is still in its nascent form which won’t appeal to all, the photography will compensate for many, featuring some gorgeous shots set against dusk and night skies -including a fabulous shot of Pär and his moped riding friends coursing through the night with just their silhouettes broken by the headlights of their bikes. Similarly most of the final scenes are shot against a misty background in the woods and again is superbly composed and visually stunning.

For anyone daring to take the title literally, I would probably venture to say that this is more a sardonic Swedish take on a love story than A Swedish Love Story. It was well rewarded and very successful back in the day but may not hold up quite so well for all modern audiences. Andersson’s work is already an acquired taste so going back to the very beginning may either be a delightful portent of things to come or be a quaint curiosity prior to his celebrated stride being reached.