I saw Sara Johnsen’s Uskyld (distributed internationally as All that Matters Is Past) a couple of nights ago. It has been reaping almost universal acclaim and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (here’s John DeFore’ glowing review from the Hollywood Reporter). And I totally hated it. I hated it almost from the first minute, actually, and I found it so tedious and pretentious and poorly conceived that it has been bothering me for three days.
What’s wrong with Uskyld? Well for starters, Johnsen makes heavy handed use of the clichés of European art cinema. While the cinematography is gorgeous, with take after take of lush Norwegian forest and farmland in summer, everything is so overly (and obviously) symbolic that the actual story never takes hold. As DeFore points out, we are in Eden, and the two brothers (Kristoffer Joner and Swedish actor David Dencik) are Abel and Cain. William and Janne (Maria Bonnevie) are Adam and Eve. And? Your point is, Sara Johnsen?
The special effects were tiresome; we see the lead character giving birth, with the baby’s head crowning and amniotic fluid gushing. We see lots of butchering of animals. We see actress Maria Bonnevie’s nipple juxtaposed with raspberries (yes, they do resemble each other), and introverted lovemaking en plein air. Spurting blood, maggots on corpses. The characters gaze at each other for way too long, or utter cryptic phrases that are clearly meant to be deep, rather than, you know, actually talk normally. They are all “troubled” by their past, but none of them is the least bit believable, as one of the few negative reviews also argues. Here’s what Todd Brown on Twitch said:
And here’s the greatest failure of All That Matters Is Past. While it very much embraces the trappings and pretenses of serious art film – multiple urination scenes, a graphic birth sequence, multiple shots of naked pregnant women all scream “This is art, take me seriously” – when you lay out the actual plot line it is laughable in its extremes and willingness to pile outrage upon outrage without any concern for whether any actual people would ever behave in these ways. Telenovelas would be embarrassed to present this plotline and the arty trappings make it just all the more ridiculous. Johnsen’s debut may have been promising but she has gone badly off the rails here.
Exactly! We see lots of extreme close up shots, both of faces, and of insects and spider webs and rippling grain. And? Your point, Johnsen? She piles it on. Murder, the 2004 Tsunami, human trafficking, the death of a child, rape. You name it, she tosses it in the mix. Any of these elements can and have been used to great effect in films. But Johnsen appears not to have been able to kill her darlings at all. The point at which I truly lost it was when the psychopathic brother Ruud floated a baby in a basket down the river past the cabin where Janne and William are camped out. Yes, all right already, we get the biblical reference to Moses, but seriously, putting the baby in a high-end designer stroller cot? That’s purple? And that we’re supposed to believe belongs to the child’s refugee mother who is living locked into the muck cellar of Ruud’s barn when she’s not servicing him sexually? That thing costs around $1000 in the US. Give me a break.
While there are many films Uskyld references, the most obvious intertext is Lars von Trier’s Antichrist from 2009. While I suppose the difference here is that the couple who are responsible for the death of their child still love each other, they still engage in the same kind of self-indulgent, irrational wallowing in their own misery and neuroses. Now a lot can be said about Antichrist (for me a profoundly misogynistic film, though I know that’s debatable), but at least Trier is capable of sorting and editing and paring down his images and themes into a cohesive whole. We have evidence that Johnsen is capable of this too; Upperdog from 2009 is a very tight, very smart and elegant film. So, given the weaknesses of Johnsen’s other major feature length film, Vinterkyss (2005), I guess I have to say that she’s now one for three.
Ugh. So tiresome!