There has been a steady import of Scandinavian and Nordic television and film in recent years. We’re well acquanted with crime, thanks to dramas like Borgen and The Bridge. Along with this though, there has been welcome import of films, some of which have been standout, should you have visited your local, independent cinema (if you’re lucky to have one). This culminated last year with Roy Andersson finishing his ‘Living Trilogy’ with A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), and there was also Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure (2015), my favourite film (beating Mad Max) of 2015. Both very different styles and subject matters, yet seem to be concerned with what goes on beneath the sultry and stylish veneer we associate with Scandanavia.
She Monkeys (2011) was Liza Aschen’s directorial debut. It was praised and awarded in Sweden, but didn’t receive too much attention over here. This no real surprise for a Swedish film, directed by female director that is just under ninety minutes long. Like Ostlund however, it encompasses a threatening tone beneath the clean and clinical surface of what we perceive people and ‘forms’ to be. It asks many questions and answers some of them.
It is though a film by a female director predominantly about feminity in a male world. There are few males in it; a father that even though he appears to be the single parent is given no real presence; and a couple of boys that act as potential love interests for the two female leads. In doing a film about females though, in a world and industry mostly led by males and reviewed by males inevitably means that it gets misconstrued. Andrew Pulver in The Guardian for instance wrote that it is a film ‘about lesbians’. Certainly there appears to be a homoerotic tension which sometimes does spill into actual manifested action, but we hardly call something like Zack Snyder’s 300 a gay film, despite there being half-naked males engaged in throwing of phallic looking objects . With She Monkeys being mostly about Emma and Cassandra’s friendship then, it is rather about the boundaries between comradeship,close friendship and potential eroticism, even if it is two females in a high stake society that preaches perfection.
Pulver then added that the film ‘need more passion’. Twin this with a comment on the streaming service I used ,who, on giving it two stars stated “that they didn’t lez [sic] off once”. Whether this was an ironic comment it or not, it illuminates the issue. In the hands of a male director in Hollywood, they might well have ‘lezzed off’ (like in Soderbergh’s Side Effects ? Which it feasibly didn’t need).
It begins when Emma joins an Equestian team and Cassandra immediately takes to Emma. Emma and Cassandra are two, athletic looking types, competing in a sport where girls try and exhibit perfect poses and forms on horses, and by this the film becomes about the restraint and what is withheld beneath these perfected forms. Emma and Cassandra’s friendship develop in a buddy-ish manner; it doesn’t necessarily develop with erotic tension, but a defensive one. How could they let one another see each other’s imperfections or weaknesses? It instead has to evolve in this suppressed away, as if there are ulterior passions and motives beneath the surface, and can only develop by the mutual desire to become as perfect as the other – a competition they haven’t created but are engaged. In this manner how could they ever ‘give themselves away’ to a boy when the opportunity arises?
And so we do not see any more of Emma’s life – it doesn’t matter. We see her at home (with her younger sister and father), at training and with Cassandra, and briefly with two boys. Aschen does not delve, or give a psychological reasoning why they are like they are. Take the example of the mother and how we are revealed nothing about her: is she absent or just never in the film, in the same way Emma never seems to be at school? This is why there is no lezzing off. We can infer but we do not know.
Another aspect that has been greatly missed is the development of the sister’s character. Emma’s young sister, around the age of six, gets told to cover-up at the swimming baths where she usually goes topless, clearly at an age where there is no real bodily signs of gender. She begins to cover up her top half, but wants to do it with a bikini. Her father warily buys her one, presumably cautious that it may be too mature for her to wear at such an age, but so he doesn’t break a promise to her, he buys it. It is leopard print and she wears it all the time.
Maybe it is about the sexualisation of females, but there is a great irony to it if there is by her covering herself up in a two-piece. And who is the one making all of the decisions? Her father may be seen to be, but she effectively cons him into it. Men may be making rules for women, but she finds her own way to deceive him.
All the relationships are built upon exchange however like the above. Cassandra literally ‘takes’ Emma’s virginity when she sabotages her opportunity with a boy (as if rescuing her rather than an act of jealousy) and makes the boy flee. Emma’s sister, who is enamoured with cousin, gives the money to him from her bikini pants that her dad pays him for babysitting her. She receives scratches from her father on her belly (but spurned by her cousin) a knowing sense of a incomprehensible desire to be satisfied?
And so are they she-monkeys? Aschen asks, are they more than animals? More than apes or monkeys? Again, it is loaded with irony. Of course they’re more than that. To the ignorant male they might not be, but it’s as if the film is made by a female through the lens of a males, and seems film purposefully made for and expecting misinterpretation. Is this a film really about women then? Hardly.