Mammoth (Lukas Moodysson, 2009)
Swedish director Lukas Moodysson changes his style radically from film to
film, but his ability to zero in on anguish and find empathy for anyone who his
camera observes is the one constant in his career. It’s also perhaps his
greatest virtue as a filmmaker. In
Mammoth, his first international co-production, he casts his net wider,
spanning the globe in his quest to locate pain. With a plot that moves from
New York City, to The Philippines, to Thailand,
Mammoth threatens to take all of the
worries of the world on its shoulders. Moodysson sees the planet’s inhabitants
as interrelated in their misery, and seems frustrated by our collective
inability to overcome it. Before long, the director’s empathy grows contagious.
Characters that initially seem designed to elicit snap judgments grow
increasingly worthy of our concern.
Mammoth is nothing if not humanist.
The film opens by showing the privileged New York City home life of Leo and Allison
(Gael García Bernal and Michelle Williams). They seem to have it all, from great
jobs, to a posh apartment, to a charming kid, to a healthy sex life. Of course,
Moodysson wouldn’t be interested in them if they weren’t suffering, so it soon
becomes apparent that although they are superficially happy, they are discontent
on a deeper level. Victims of their own success (he’s a successful videogame
designer, she’s an E.R. surgeon), they have allowed their careers to supplant
their personal lives. They each feel they lack control over their time and their
relationship with their child. There’s a sad moment early on, when Allison looks
around at her apartment and finds nothing, including her daughter, that she can
take solace in. The moment is convincing not only because Williams is such an
inherently soulful actress, but also because it gives depth to a character that
was previously something of a yuppie cliché.
This trend continues throughout
Mammoth. The more time Moodysson spends with this couple, their nanny (Marife
Necesito, quite good), and the other characters that they influence, the more he
zeroes in on their dawning realizations that their lives are hollow. It’s an
approach that forces a process of questioning in the audience, as well, because
it achieves awareness by undermining our assumptions and our reliance on
appearances. The script arrives at this state of self-reflection only after some
blunt theme-setting. This includes a visit to the
Museum of Natural History where characters discuss
blood cells and the planet Jupiter, the gift of a pen made from the tusk of a
wooly mammoth, and a face-to-face encounter with an elephant, each of which is
intended to give some sense of film’s universalism. Still, Moodysson eventually
succeeds in bringing his audience into a frame of mind in which his enlargement
of his characters’ personal concerns seems appropriate.
Mammoth’s globe-hopping ensemble narrative has prompted lazy comparisons to
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s
Moodysson’s more interested in examining his characters than setting up a series
of melodramatic coincidences. While there are global ironies aplenty here (e.g.
a woman working in America sends a toy which was made in the Philippines back to
her son, who still lives in that country), and Moodysson’s style is slicker than
ever before, he’s in control of his tone, which steadily accumulates in power as
the movie unfurls. Before long, the director’s careful attention to emotional
nuance overcomes most objections to the subject matter or trite themes. It’s in
its last half-hour, when Mammoth
begins to drum up climaxes, that the narrative pushes a little too hard.
Moodysson recovers, though, and locates a fresh tragedy, by having most
of his characters shake off their epiphanies.
Mammoth makes a call for a new, globalized family unit and then mourns its
failure to materialize.
Mammoth contrasts the concerns of a very privileged group of people with
those of a more desperate group. As such, it’s an easy movie to snipe at, but
its quest for authenticity, even in its most affluent characters, is honorable.
It seems to genuinely grapple with inequity and the impossibility of one person
to change such a mammoth problem, and yet it shows how good intentions and
global awareness can still have a corrupting influence. Though Moodysson
overplays his hand at times (such as when his plot ventures back into the world
of child prostitution that he explored in
Lilya 4-Ever), the film ultimately does justice to its title, even while
focusing on the insular disappointments of life. When Allison flips the channels
of her TV set, we plainly see that the world is in crisis on a global scale. The
rest of Mammoth examines such a
crisis on an individual level.