Keeping it Together

Lukas Moodysson's new film satirises life in a 1970s hippy commune without once being cliched or cynical.

Timandra Harkness
Writer

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It would be easy to make a satire of 1970s commune life.

Throw together a selection of characters – the ardent leftie, the free-love enthusiast, the feminist lesbian – push them to extremes and let the fun unfold. What is remarkable about Together – the new film by young Swedish director Lukas Moodysson – is that it eschews this easy route and gives us instead a finely observed comedy that is warm without once losing its sharpness.

It’s 1975: Göran and the rest of the commune that calls itself ‘Together’ are celebrating the death of Spanish dictator General Franco when his sister Elisabeth calls. Her husband Rolf has hit her. Göran takes the commune’s flower-painted VW camper to collect her and her two kids.

The arrival of Elisabeth and her children Stefan and Eva gives us the chance to see the commune through outside eyes. The children in particular, whose performances are wonderfully understated, are initially appalled and mortified by the commune’s wilful unconventionality. In vain they try to prevent uncle Göran from driving them to the school gate in the embarrassingly hippyish camper van.

Alongside the newcomers, the audience gets to know the commune-dwellers as real people, and this opens up a new layer of comedy. Each radical posture is the product of an individual’s life: Lasse’s persistent hostility becomes understandable as we learn that his ex-wife still lives in the commune and is now trying to start a lesbian relationship with Elisabeth – as well as with nextdoor’s haughty, anti-hippy housewife.

The characters’ struggles to live up to their ideals – ludicrous though some of those ideals appear today – are painful as well as funny. Göran genuinely believes in free love and an open relationship – from the neck up at least. The problem is, he also genuinely loves Lena.

Another easy option would be to write off Elisabeth’s husband Rolf, who starts off by smacking his wife and then descends into drunken squalor instead of providing a refuge for his children from all the madness. But Moodysson avoids this one as well, sparing us nothing of Rolf’s mindlessness while still getting our sympathy for his distress – making Rolf’s failures as a father all the sadder.

New arrival Elisabeth thrives in the commune, and Eva and Stefan gradually learn to like it – and inevitably, they start to exert an influence. One of the funniest scenes is when Lasse’s son Tet (named after the Tet offensive in Vietnam) plays with Stefan – first delighting in Stefan’s ‘war toys’ (never seen in the house until now), before taking turns to torture each other with imaginary electric shocks. ‘Say you like Pinochet, say you like Pinochet!’ ‘Never! Not even if you put needles under my fingernails!’

It is hard to imagine this film being made in Britain – it’s no Billy Elliot. Even the tentative friendship between Eva and the respectable neighbours’ son Fredrik stumbles agonisingly through adolescent awkwardness and the horrors of emerging sexual awareness – made all the more difficult in this place of supposed openness about such things. Together also has a lightness of touch which lets both comedy and poignancy spring from simple, visual scenes, often with little or no dialogue. There are scenes when the children’s faces tell you all you need to know.

Though sympathetic to the characters, the film harshly exposes the shortfalls in their dreams of a better way of living. What you are left with is affection for them, and hope that their capacity for change, and their genuine desire to help each other, will let them find a way to live together – in spite of, if not because of, their desire to change everything about human domestic behaviour.

Together is on release in selected cinemas in the UK.

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