Lonely farmer, 39, own car. Seeks young lady housekeeper. Photograph appreciated.
Sometimes a movie is just what it seems to be. Under the Sun starts off slowly, takes its time in the middle, and doesn't hurry the ending. If you spent the movie awaiting the inevitable climax, anticipating the hidden twist that will yank the rug out from beneath you…well, this one might not be for you. If you relish the thought of a bittersweet film that leans towards sweet, read on.
Facts of the Case
Olof (Rolf Lassgård) is a staid farmer with the body of a bear and the spirit of a buttercup. He has spent his life in relative solitude: tending his inherited farm, going to choir practice, and providing counterpoint to his sensation-seeking acquaintance Erik (Johan Widerberg). Loneliness causes Olof to place an ad in the paper for a young lady housekeeper. Of the two replies, Ellen (Helena Bergström) is the only one to send a photo. Ellen's exquisite good looks are enough for Olof, and soon she has her high heels buried in the dirt of Olof's homestead. Ellen's presence upsets Erik's carefully cultivated plans. Olof has lent Erik money, but Olof cannot read. Erik insists that he is trustworthy, and Olof has no reason to doubt him…but will Ellen?
Under the Sun is based on "The Little Farm," by British novelist H.E. Bates. That explains other English touches: music by Irishman Paddy Moloney and direction by Colin Nutley. Despite its British heritage, Under the Sun is at heart a Swedish film; native Swedes can be forgiven a bit of indignation that an outsider captured the heart of Sweden.
Under the Sun is quiet and delicate. As such, I won't talk too much about the story for fear of depriving you of its mystery. Much of the plot is based on uncertainty about the characters: who is kind, who is not. Olof is caught between two strong personalities, both with an agenda and both with his best interests supposedly at heart. A fourth player is Olof's suppressed libido, awakened for the first time. The viewer's cynicism is left to fill in many of the gaps. The interplay between cynicism and unspoken events forms our reactions to the film.
The triangle of Olof, Ellen, and Erik is one of the more complex triads in recent memory. Each actor is solid and brings a distinct portrayal to the table. Johan Widerberg comes on too strong, but he usually manages to creep back to right side of the line. Helena Bergström is assured and mysterious, giving an almost mythical portrayal feminine allure. Olof represents purity; Rolf Lassgård plays him as a shrewd but shy open book. The three avoid some clichéd interactions in favor of less expected roads. (Honorable mention goes to Linda Ulvaeus for her charming portrayal of the newspaper receptionist. Her brief scene leaves a lasting impression.)
The film is set in 1956 rural Sweden. The characters have symbolic qualities, while the cinematography emphasizes a lush and bucolic Swedish landscape. Good cinematography makes you want to be there, and Jens Fischer's cinematography does just that. The natural countryside is depicted with such Eden-like grace that the land becomes a significant character. A symbolic undercurrent begins to emerge. (Forgive a secondhand American perspective; my knowledge of Sweden comes only from friends and loved ones who lived there.) Sweden is a relatively untainted country. Bloodlines are pure, and foreigners had little impact for many years. Over time, through industrialization and media saturation, that separation began to erode. Erik represents the corruption of native Swedish youth by foreign influence. He was restless and sought adventure overseas; its mark has forever soured his outlook. It is a subtle admonition that desirable women choose men with rough exteriors and inner beauty over attractive men with spoiled outlook.
Whether or not you are sure of Ellen's intentions, Olof makes his plain. He revels in his newfound sexual self. Under the Sun dodges the naked depiction of Olof's sexual education, opting for photographic innuendo and sensual surroundings rather than an erotic portrayal of sex. This shyness seems disingenuous after Nutley treats us to a graphic view of horses having sex. Is equine modesty somehow beneath human modesty? Playing "bare breast dodge ball" with the camera while showing an erect, ejaculating horse penis seems faintly hypocritical.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I review more and more DVDs, a studio fingerprint begins to emerge. I can tell by the transfer which studio produced the disc. I'm grateful to New Yorker Films for bringing us such sophisticated and noteworthy foreign films, and for not shying away from highbrow eroticism or subtitles. I'm less appreciative of their overuse of digital noise reduction. Sometimes it is okay to let film grain stay. Watching Under the Sun, I was distracted by the artificial shimmers and swarms of digital noise reduction. Like edge enhancement (which thankfully there was little of), digital noise reduction is one of those things that most viewers perceive without consciously recognizing. If you have even passing familiarity with DNR, this transfer might take you out of the flow of the film. At one point, Erik's eyeballs seemed to float in midair while his face moved around. When a man's eyeballs pop off of his face, it is hard not to be freaked out.
The audio (aside from the misplaced but very good Irish music) is average. It wasn't bad, it wasn't good, it just was.
The trailer is noteworthy because it shows a handful of scenes that were not in the film. Even Hollywood trailers have been known to do the same when a trailer is produced before the final cut of the film. But it always makes you wonder if you are watching the whole film.
There are frequent shots of a jet plane interspersed with the rest of the film. There is no clear explanation of why. At risk of being alienated from my film critic brethren—pretentious, cryptic symbols such as this really bother me.
By the end of the film, you've traveled a beautiful road of characterization. You might marvel at how such seemingly simple characters in such a seemingly simple story have managed to generate such tenderness and loathing. Under the Sun just might speak to you, and if it does you'll have another treasured film in your collection.
The jury is instructed not to read the entire verdict until everyone has seen the film. Let's just say that one of the defendants is sneaky and loathsome, and the sinking of the Andrea Doria is a subtle nod to justice.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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