PURE (Till det som är vackert) B
Sweden (97 mi) 2009 d: Lisa Langseth
This first time feature film by Swedish writer/director Lisa Langseth seems to have gone through several permutations, including at least 3 or 4 different titles, initially released in Europe as Beloved, before changing the title for the American overseas market to Pure, though the translated title is closer to For That Which Is Beautiful. Now having seen the film, Pure doesn’t really work, and was previously used in 2002 by Keira Knightley in an edgy realist Gillies MacKinnon British film about addicted mothers, where the title made dangerous reference to potentially lethal overdoses of heroin. Adapting her own play, interestingly starring Noomi Rapace (the original Lisbeth Salander in the 2009 European version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)) in the 2004 premiere at Stockholm's Dramatic Theater, this film initially stakes out new territory, feeling very much like a composite of several nations, especially in the riveting performance by the lead actress Alicia Vikander, who won the Swedish Best Actress Award for her performance as Katarina, showing incredible range and the ability to engage in a remarkable downward descent, something along the lines of Hungarian miserablism, but also the Dardennes Brothers film ROSETTA (1999), where in the course of her life she becomes more and more constricted, suffocating in the bleak reality of growing up in the slums of the housing projects, reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (2009), especially the unflinching, alcoholic portrayal of her all but absent mother (Josephine Bauer). Katarina gives a raw, searingly confessional opening monologue that has one’s head spinning before the opening credits, using offensive gutter language to describe herself, where this is a girl barely twenty who uses physical assault to express her ferocious indignation with others, literally attacking people when she’s had enough of their perceived hostility or abuse. In this respect, both she and her mother have regularly crossed the moral line of human depravity, sinking into the depths of hopeless oblivion from which there may be no possible return.
From this emotional abyss, Katarina has learned to elevate her spirit through the use of classical music and an MP3 player with earplugs, where the musical soundtrack is filled wall-to-wall with breathtakingly beautiful music, especially from Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, where she takes her somewhat common and unimaginative boyfriend to a concert of Mozart’s Requiem, played to perfection by the Gothenburg Symphony in their hometown concert hall. While she is utterly enthralled, his reaction is more or less one of open hostility due to the obvious class difference, where his life bears no resemblance to that music. Katarina’s curiosity, on the other hand, takes her into the concert hall afterwards where she listens to a rehearsal in progress, temporarily transported from the graphic violence of her neighborhood. When a woman approaches her, mistaking her for a temporary job applicant as a front desk receptionist, she creates a sympathetic lie that sounds heart renderingly appealing and is miraculously given the position straightaway. Apparently the maternal instincts of her boss, Isabella Alveborg, kick in when Katarina indicates a preference for Mozart to Snoop Dogg, drawing a distinction between her own daughter, suddenly becoming the daughter she never had. This position gives her access to the continuous stream of music and even some of the principle players, including the conductor, Samuel Fröler, who introduces her to a book of poetry and the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard, where the quote “Courage is life's only measure” literally enraptures her, where she is quickly swept off her feet by the surge of untapped emotions from this elegant smorgasbord of cultural enlightenment. The conductor obviously takes liberties with this intern, which turns into an ill-advised Clintonian Monica Lewinsky affair, which she misreads, severing all attachments to her former life, which leaves her flying freefall on a trapeze with no safety net.
Vikander’s emotional upheaval is beautifully portrayed, much of it wordless, where she moves between an enraptured schoolgirl’s crush to a demoralized and humiliated woman who’s been betrayed, where she’s cruelly removed from her position, taking her feet out from under her, initiating a spiraling descent into a crushing void of hopelessness and despair. Having literally nowhere to go, as her boyfriend has disowned her, throwing her out as well, all she has is the street to comfort her, finding each day a stark nightmarish rejection, feeling ever more helpless and scorned. At this point, the film’s turn to misery and gloom has a Hungarian feel of bleak depression, something that country specializes in above all other nations, where suicide idealizations frequent the screen, led by Vikander’s no holds barred approach in allowing her soul to rise to the surface and literally be exposed and debased, leaving her with an irreparable psychological wound that is internally ruptured, where she can’t stop the bleeding. Based on the eloquence and ferocity of Vikander’s performance, offering a fiercely unique perspective, this could have been one of the best films of the year, as again, Beethoven is never far away in the musical expression of human pain and agony, where he contemplated suicide at the impending loss of his hearing. After all the effort to get to this point, building a believable character within such a painfully realist framework, it’s the director that is her own undoing, adding an epilogue style finale that feels like a betrayal of everything that came before, offering a compromising, uplifting air of hope through art and cultural awareness that simply isn’t there. She reaches a point for which there are no further options, but then one is pulled out of a hat, which feels more like trickery and the artificial wonders of rewrites, offering a studio style ending that is more in line with focus groups than real life, as this otherwise tragically uncompromising film is not designed and triggered for happy endings, but needs the blistering shock of her own hellish emptiness and inadequacy, which the director achieves for one startling moment, which wordlessly offers a painterly Madonna and child rendering of transcendence from human suffering. Unfortunately the director then adds a completely unnecessary tacked-on ending, which derails the previously established dour mood, stealing much of the emotional power away from that original moment of utter devastation, allowing the audience a release point to feel good about, as if she has finally achieved Kierkegaard’s message.