Once described by Ingmar Bergman as a “young master” following the enormous success of his career debut Show Me Love, Lukas Moodysson has since struggled to win the same plaudits having spent the majority of the last decade delving deeper into avant-garde and, by definition, less accessible projects which naturally culminated in the roundly despised Container (pretentiously described by the director as “a silent movie with sound”).
It’s somewhat surprising therefore that Moodysson has come almost full circle to make his most ‘mainstream’ film since the sex-slave docu-drama Lilya-4-Ever. As if to cement this fact, the casting chimes harmoniously with his return to conventional cinema, the star names of Gael García Bernal and Michelle Williams reflecting the grander commercial aspirations that were presumably absent during the making of A Hole In My Heart and Container (ironically the kind of celebrity currency that Moodysson so openly despises).
Leo (Gael García Bernal), a successful gaming entrepreneur, lives with his wife Ellen (Michelle Williams), daughter Jackie and their nanny Gloria (Marife Necesito) in an affluent part of Soho, New York. When Leo is summoned to Thailand to finalise a contract, his resulting absence sparks a series of events and private meditations which will change everyone’s lives forever. Gloria’s sons, left behind in the Philippines with their grandmother, suffer from their parent’s absence, inadvertently winding up in dangerous situations in their desperate attempts to reach her. Aware of her sons’ anguish but unable to act on it, Gloria develops an over-familiar relationship with Jackie to compensate for her sense of hopelessness, much to the consternation of her employer. Meanwhile, Ellen, a surgeon faced with appalling injuries and deaths on a daily basis, begins to show the early symptoms of a nervous breakdown, straining her already distant relationship with her daughter.
Elaborating on (or rather stagnating in) previously explored themes of capitalism, globalisation, Western greed, physical and mental abuse of women and children, sexual exploitation, materialism and the inherent cruelty of adults, Moodysson barely leaves a pause between endless depictions of misery and characters delivering solemn speeches or being subjected to some form of callousness, if they are not perpetrating the act themselves. It’s the cinematic equivalent of being bludgeoned over the head with thousands of televised charity appeals while an army sergeant screams obscenities into your ear for not caring about the issues as much as Moodysson does.
Echoes of the equally pious Babel reverberate around the hollow structure of Mammoth’s narrative, adopting Alejandro González Iñárritu’s penchant for interloping stories but curiously lacking the requisite dramatic tension of the latter to lift it beyond a frustrated lecture. You might not come out of this one doubting Moodysson’s sincerity but you’ll certainly question his ability to translate these concerns to the screen.