All That Matters Is Past (Uskyld)

Norway (2012) Dir. Sara Johnsen

Love triangles are messy enough affairs when they implode if the acrimony is that bad, so you can imagine how combustible the situation would be if this illicit ménage à trois involved two brothers?

Janne (Maria Bonnevie) is the orphan girl who comes between two brothers Ruud (David Dencik) and William (Kristoffer Joner) in a story beginning when they were all children. The brothers’ family had moved to the country where the young blonde girl has been living along in a nearby field. The attraction was immediate all round although it is clear Janne and William was the stronger connection.

Present day, and William returns to Norway after many years away looking to reconnect with Janne, now a married stepmother and a teacher. However, the spark is still there and the couple retreat to the country where they grew up and lived as lovers. Ruud still lives nearby in the old family house and still harbours jealousy and anger towards his sibling and Janne.

As All That Matters Is Past is my first encounter with Norwegian director Sara Johnsen, I get the feeling she is a fan of Lars von Trier, or at least his controversial 2009 opus Anti-Christ. This might not be true of all her four films but the spectre of von Trier looms heavy over this dark tale, be it visually, the poor treatment of animals, or the unbridled misery that permeates through every frame.

Told through a non-linear narrative that skips liberally and randomly between timelines, it is hard to figure what Johnsen is trying to say here, unless it is as simple and reductive as don’t get involved with feuding brothers. Johnsen actually opens the film with the grisly scene of Janne luring Ruud into the woods where William is up a tree ready to drop a large rock on his sibling’s head.

It doesn’t go as smoothly as planned but of course, we don’t know yet who these people are and what led them to this point. The voice over narration courtesy of pregnant police detective Ragnhild (Maria Heiskanen) informs us briefly of the beginnings of this saga, from Janne’s self-sufficient upbringing to her first meeting with her new neighbours and future lovers.

Ruud appears to be the older of the two though nothing is made explicit in terms of age aside from Janne being ten, but his dark hair and serious demeanour frames him as the malevolent one from the onset, watching on with a steely glare as his blonde brother gets a smile from their equally blonde visitor. The next shot of Ruud fuming as he spies the pair in the river naked confirms our suspicions but doesn’t hint at the extremes this envy will manifest itself.

With regard to the point about Ruud being the older brother, when Janne was 14, he has a car, cigarettes, and booze, and is the one (presumably) to sleep with Janne first, an experience she then builds on by seducing William afterwards. Coupled with how quickly Janne in the present day was to leave her family for William puts a huge question mark over Janne’s innocence in all of this.

But, we are told earlier that young Janne learned about the facts of life from discarded text books and magazines so her view of it is bound to be a little askew without parental guidance to explain the nuances of it. William is in many ways the innocent one, or at least in the sense he has a stronger moral compass than his brother does, and everything he does from beginning to end is for Janne.

As far as character studies go, missing from this one is an explanation for the behaviour of the trio which is surely rooted in something far deeper that what is delineated via the actions of the three leads. Ruud in particular is sadistic, ritually harming and killing animals and later on, raping Janne in exchange for providing her and William food. He is also involved in harbouring Chinese refugees in the basement of his house, and in one scene, urges a young mother to wear a pink top, just like Janne does.  

Clearly, with so many issues for this trio to work through, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it all ends in tragedy, but Johnsen wants to ensure the audience is as traumatised as the characters are. Animal lovers won’t enjoy this film as it contains a number of unsettling scenes which didn’t need to be shown, though one does have a relevance to a later call back for a genuinely jumpy moment.

However, the most graphic images concern a flashback of Janne giving birth in a field, in a rare instance of the actual process being shown in a fictional work. Childbirth might be a natural occurrence and shouldn’t be made to feel sordid but in the context of this scene, it has a darker, uncomfortable aura about it, hence the von Trier comparisons.

Maybe Johnsen isn’t trying to steal the crown of enfant terrible of arthouse cinema and had a valid agenda making this film, but the abject bleakness and relentless, macabre melancholy drapes a thick veil of confusion over what it could be. The cast, which counts different actors for each timeline, are all committed to their roles with the present day trio proving exceptional in their roles.

Despite the inherent malaise and gnarly overtones, the cinematography is paradoxically vibrant and vivid in capturing the verdant charms of rural Norway, and brings a sense of magic to Janne and William’s bucolic existence. It is quite a ruse to make the viewer feel so in awe of a location yet so afraid of it at the same time.

Recommending All That Matters Is Past however isn’t easy unless one enjoys a challenge from their cinema, which they will get here. If only Johnsen was a little less oblique with her objectives, it could have been a more affecting work.