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Thomas Wartenberg watches a radical movie about some unlikely couples grappling with homophobia, feminist ideology and each other in a 1970s Swedish commune… and enjoys it!
There’s an important moment in Lukas Moodysson’s film, Together (2000), when Klas (Shanti Roney), a gay man with serious doubts about ever finding a lover, approaches Lasse (Ola Norell), a heterosexual man on whom he has a crush. The scene takes place in Lasse’s bedroom in an eponymously named left-wing commune in Sweden in 1975. Lasse’s wife Anna (Jessica Liedberg) has left him because she has decided it is politically correct to be a lesbian and throughout the film we have seen Lasse watching her, in pain and anger, as she clumsily attempts to initiate sexual relationships with other women who come to the commune. Lasse isn’t the only character watching these encounters, however, for the film also shows us Klas watching the watcher, his own unsatisfied desire evident.
At this crucial moment, Klas has been emboldened to directly approach Lasse, despite the fact that he is a confirmed heterosexual, and try, once more, to seduce him, only this time he opts for a direct approach. Lying in bed next to Lasse, he offers to give him a blow job, telling him that it doesn’t really matter if it’s a man or a woman who does it, you still wind up feeling you’re in heaven. According to Klas, gender just doesn’t matter when it comes to intimate sexual relationships. This is something, he tells Lasse, that Lasse’s wife has learned but he still hasn’t. After all, were all just humans. We shouldn’t place such barriers between us. To our surprise, Lasse agrees, but in an aggressive way, zipping down his pants, exposing his penis, and telling Klas that he has one minute to give him an erection. If he fails, it will prove that he is a confirmed heterosexual.
This moment, with its bald assertion that the gender of one’s partner is irrelevant, so that gender preferences are simply artificial barriers to the attainment of happiness, conveys a central message of this quirky and highly entertaining film. Since back in 1975 I was roughly the same age as the characters, for me the film is a nostalgic look at a time when sexual experimentation and radical politics were more or less the order of the day. The war in Vietnam and the women’s movement, not to mention the birth control pill, contributed to a sense that the present was all that we had, so that societal structures that were oppressive, that hindered our fulfillment as human beings, had to be tested and, when necessary, altered by whatever means necessary. Together takes a wry but serious look at that time. And nearly everyone is a target for the filmmakers irony and sarcasm.
The film’s narrative focuses on Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren) and Rolf (Michael Nyqvist), a working class couple, and their two children, Eva (Emma Samuelsson) and Stefan (Sam Kessel). When Rolf hits Elisabeth, she decides to leave him and to seek shelter at the commune in which her brother Goeren (Gustav Hammarsten) lives. The film gets much of its humor from how this rather traditional woman and her two children react to the topsy turvy world that awaits them at the commune.
At the commune, Elisabeth gets acquainted with feminist ideology, as Anna attempts to seduce her. Although Elisabeth is intrigued by Anna, and the two influence each other by showing them the value of the other side, the film is never explicit about what transpires between them. The one suggestion that we do get is when Elisabeth’s son, Stefan, is looking for her on the first night of their stay at Together, can’t find her, and gets freaked out. She’s only been in Anna’s room but she returns to the family bedroom to reassure him that she’ll be there for him. Indirectly, the film seems to suggest that this mother of two can’t afford sexual experimentation.
The film takes a pretty straight-forward feminist line on the problem of domestic violence and this forms the core of its narrative, although its various antics and sub-plots keep its political line submerged beneath the surface. Once she has spent some time at Together, Elisabeth realizes that she does not have to accept the domination of a man in order to lead a life that she finds fulfilling. Indeed, by the end of the film she rejects the role of housewife, saying that she will get a job and never again accept consignment to women’s traditional role. Only if her reformed husband will accept her as she has become is she prepared for a reconciliation.
One of the things I like best about Together is the range of its sympathy. Although the film has a clear political agenda – pro-feminist and anti-homophobic – it pokes fun at nearly everyone. The rigidities of the left are shown to be silly and sophomoric, as when a couple leaves the commune because, among other things, the children have been allowed to read Pippi Longstocking, that great tool of capitalism. The film attacks political rigidities as creating barriers that serve only to make people miserable.
Although the film’s harshest portrait is of a very bourgeois heterosexual couple living next to Together, it is only the husband who is really skewered. Both he and Rolf, the two straight males who are not politically progressive, are depicted as rather dangerous types. Fortunately, the film allows Rolf the chance to redeem himself, as he realizes that his behavior is costing him the love of his children, a loss too great for him to bear. Although presented quickly and in bold strokes, his regeneration is in keeping with the film’s generally warm view of human possibilities.
If the film’s defense of feminism is rather standard, the same cannot be said about its attack on heterosexism. Here, the film boldly presents gender as completely irrelevant to sexual and intimate relationships. Although the Lasse-Klas relationship is the film’s primary vehicle for making this point, it also uses a minor character, Birger (Sten Ljunggren), to bring it home. Birger lives all alone and is truly miserable. Although he had a terrible childhood, living in poverty on a farm, he tells Rolf that even that was preferable to the isolation in which he now lives. Loneliness, he says, is the worst thing a person has to face. And his statement, I think, represents the view of the filmmaker. For him, loneliness is such an absolute evil that anything that makes people experience it is also evil. In so far as our self-understandings as straight or gay block us from relationships that could diminish our loneliness, the film sees them as damaging barriers that need to be destroyed. Many of the targets that the left has traditionally attacked – such as capitalism and the mistreatment of animals – are presented by the film as less terrible than sectarians have assumed. Indeed, it asserts that these pale in the face of heterosexism – the assumption that our intimate sexual relationships must take place between a man and a woman – in terms of the cost they exact in human misery.
Together is thus a pretty unique example of the genre of film that I call the unlikely couple film. Filled with many unlikely couples – both heterosexual and gay – the film takes pot shots at many traditional assumptions about intimate relationships and their connection to more traditional leftist politics. But where the film is really radical is in its claim that gender preferences in sex are nothing but barriers to human fulfillment. While it ridicules many of the pretensions of its erstwhile utopian communards, the film’s own utopian dimension lies precisely in its view of gender. In this respect, the film breaks new ground in a way that may stretch the credulity of many of its viewers.
© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2002
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.