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C. Claire Thomson (ed.), Northern Constellations. New Readings in Nordic Cinema

Norvik Press,  2006. ISBN: 9781870041638

Reviewed by Annika Lindskog in SBR 2006:2


Northern Constellations is as unusual as it is a welcome beast. It consists of essays on Nordic cinema that have many uncommon virtues – among them language, timing and topics. There are relatively few books on Nordic cinema written in English, and even fewer that have been written recently and with current issues in mind (both within the discipline of film studies and within the local context of the repertoire). But above all, Northern Constellations moves away from the more traditional treatment of Nordic cinema which tends to aim either for everything (in the form of chronological accounts within national borders) or the very specific (interest bestowed on a handful of particularly prominent film makers). Instead Northern Constellations sees the Nordic region as a rich whole and its outside borders as merely a convenient demarcation, and offers readings selected to uncover previously neglected aspects and contexts of individual creations and collective environments alike. It might therefore not provide much in the way of linear coverage, but instead lifts this particular canon out of that oftrepeated historical narrative and the long shadows cast by Bergman, Dogme and Dreyer. The specific interests that Northern Constellations chooses to scrutinize are indeed just that, both specific and interesting.The four sections the essays are organized into, and carry a loose relation to, have been given three keywords each, which serve to both connect and contrast. In Spaces – Bodies – Skin the essays explore different aspects of the relationship(s) between camera, space and body, and include studies of films by Dreyer and von Trier, as well as a batch of recent films from Sweden. Local – National – Global investigates representations of, and preoccupations with, a geographical, cultural and/or social collectiveness, and turn the focus on examples of Norwegian (national) and Danish (local; global) cinema. Memory – Reality – History links in with the idea of a localized, national space, and goes on to explore the collective idea of self in the shape of “national memory”, this time looking at Finland, Iceland and Norway in turn.The last section, Auteur – Authority – Subjectivity, investigates the narrative voice – Sjöström, von Trier and Bergman/ Ullman have their products examined in relation to literature, the abnormal, and gendered auteurism in turn. There are three contributions that deal directly with films from the Swedish spectra.Together they touch on what could be said to be the most prevalent and intriguing spheres of Swedish film – the Golden Age, Bergman, and recent films on the “new” Sweden and its new Swedes. Bjarne Thorup Thomsen (senior lecturer in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh) writes on Ibsen, Lagerlöf and Sjöström with particular focus on Terje Vigen. Using Lagerlöf's change of heart from suspicion to converted enthusiasm about the new medium as an indicator of film’s slowly developing status, and placing Terje Vigen at its generally acknowledged start of this development,Thomsen goes on to map out how the film not only manages to stay very close to its textual source, but also engages in a dialogue with its own medium, as well as with the society and concerns of the time around it, to a much further extent than previously perhaps realized.The result is an engaging and convincing analysis that draws out of Terje Vigen (and perhaps by extension opens the door for similar treatment of other films of the same era) qualities beyond its oft praised text-conversion, adding more to Ibsen’s poem than just mere pictures, and on the whole doing a grander job of transporting a textual source to the screen than has previously perhaps been understood. Equally fascinating is Sharon Lin Tay’s (lecturer in Film Studies at Middlesex University) laying bare of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman’s respective attitudes to relationships between men and women, as their films Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Faithless (2000) reveal them. As Faithless was directed by Ullman, but scripted by Bergman, as it is perceived as a sequel to Scenes and conducts an extensive inter-filmic dialogue with it, and as Ullman once was but no longer is married to Bergman,Tay’s argument that we can read them as gendered perspectives of the conditions surrounding relationships is compelling. In her reading, Faithless attacks virtually every seminal notion that Scenes (and by extension Bergman) seems to hold, and presents for each of them an alternative reality. Whereas in Scenes “male abandonment of responsibilities that patriarchal privileges entail is passed off as progressive liberalism”, Faithless “provides a stark picture: those unable to cope with a spiralling network of betrayal end their lives while those left behind live on in guilt”. The cynical voice of Faithless, according to Tay, makes a “male melodrama” of Scenes, exposes the “romantic notion of the male directorial genius” for what it is, and ultimately challenges the auteurial voice of Bergman. Lastly, Amanda Doxater (PhD in Scandinavian Studies at University of California at Berkeley) concerns herself with “Bodies in elevators”.The elevator, she argues, can be read as a cinematic tool for conveying ideas on transnationalism and cultural diversity. Doxater makes use of several films to illustrate her point, including Secrets of Women (1952), Blackskull (1981), Lethal Film (1988), Hell Breaks Loose (2003), and The Elevator (2003). In all these, the characteristics, space and limitations that an elevator offers can be seen as underscoring, emphasizing or representing various aspects of the conditions for a Sweden in internal transit, for its newly arrived inhabitants and for its inhabitants of previously who now see their space and settings change around them. It is an individual and refreshing approach to a significant part of the output in current Swedish cinema that all too often gets bundled together, cut off from “other” films, and explained away with the singular characterization of “immigrant cinema”. In this it characterizes the spirit that permeates all entries in Northern Constellations – focused, individualistic approaches resting on solid familiarity with the topics and their disciplinary context.


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