Little Red in the Looking Glass: Fredrik Edfeldt’s The Girl
By Diane Sippl
“They had no
business going off to Africa and leaving you
here. I guess that’s what happens when
you want to save the whole damn world.
What kind of monkey business is going on around here? Maybe you’ll have to stay with us. Jesus, what’s the matter with some people?”
He helps himself to another whisky from her parents’ cabinet, heads off in his car, and drives it over the edge of the road into a ditch.
This is how Gunnar, a hefty middle-aged man who lives down the road, relates to his neighbor, a quiet girl, almost ten, but not legally old enough to accompany her parents and brother for the summer on a medical campaign abroad “to save Africa’s children.” Gunnar hasn’t seen her moments earlier when, her skin pasted with mud and her chest bearing loads of strung beads, she was running a tribal ring-around-the-furniture in her living room. It has come to this, midway through the film, and what makes it all so worth watching is just that question — what is “this”? A scene of rebellion and “acting out”? A psychological retrieval in the face of loss? An imagined initiation ritual? A child’s playful fantasy? And we wonder how to classify this film: Another Blame It on Fidel, Nordic-style? A 400 Blows, girl-style? A traditional bildungsroman?
Unlike the heroines of Carlos Saura’s Cría Cuervos and Jacques Doillon’s Ponette, our protagonist is neither haunted by evil powers nor mourning the death of her mother: Fredrik Edfeldt’s mesmerizing debut feature, The Girl, is no more a national allegory than it is a foray into pint-size existentialism. Struggling to digest her emotional predicament, this child (the captivating Blanca Engström, who appears in nearly every frame) has night-time dreams, but not day-time visions. And she’s a little older than these predecessors, so unlike the two tots in So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain who are likewise placed in the hands of an alcoholic aunt, one who punishes bed-wetting, this girl suffers constipation, until a neighboring mother helps her out. Facing — but not yet entering — puberty, she is undergoing an awkward summer beside two playmates who proudly practice pre-teen terror and a number of adults who behave like sex-crazed adolescents. What is the difference — and the distance — between a being a “child” and being a “girl,” the film asks, providing endless windows through which the little heroine looks out upon her life. Observing, reflecting, testing, mimicking, she is most intriguing of all as she learns to look inside.
The Girl unfolds through the innocent eyes of an always curious and sometimes frightened child, one as sensitive to her world as she is withholding of a reaction, and who can be both coy and mortified at turns. But let’s back up. The film opens with an extreme close-up on fidgeting hands and feet as she receives an injection, an immunization after which the doctor offers her a consolation for her pain, and she chooses a paper-doll of an old-fashioned country girl carrying apples in her apron. Without yet even seeing our young protagonist’s face, we get a close-up of her chosen self-image. The car ride home takes her past green fields, lakes, and a sky bearing a hot air balloon, the countryside of Trollhāttan in 1981. She pins the paper-doll on the corkboard in her private hideaway, a tiny shed off to the side of their house in rural Sweden.
A last-ditch effort on the part of her parents to come up with a babysitter on short notice brings the girl’s aunt, Anna, to “watch” her, which is the last thing the woman cares to do. “Can you really handle alcohol?” the girl asks her, even before a frightening scene ensues in which Anna brings her debauched pick-ups home with her after bar-hopping in town. Luckily the girl has already put a plan into place, matching up her thrill-seeking chaperone with an old flame who whisks her away. Now the girl is on her own, and so are we, in imagining all that races through the head of this pensive, contemplative, self-willed child as we come to see her world through her eyes.
Between the negligent caretaker and the proverbial neighbor man who’s out washing the car with his hose as the girl rides up on her bike, and who commands his little song and dance from her each time she passes, the film threatens to look a tad conventional, but this feeling passes quickly as the girl’s point of view settles in. The adults, often viewed by her from a voyeuristic position that is never intentional on her part, remind us that in film history it is usually they who possess the privileged angle on children; in this film it’s the adults, and eventually most of the other children, who pass under the girl’s scrutiny. She is the viewing subject, and they are the objects of her gaze.
She doesn’t always want it that way. She might rather not see the rotund naked body of her swimming instructor who flaunts her saggy flesh solicitously: “That’s how it is. You’re going to end up looking just like this some day.” Nor would she want to see her one true friend, Ola, with his pants pulled down by her neighbor, Tina, whose chubbiness has taught her to taunt others, and Tina’s cousin Gisela, a city-slicker from Stockholm, a she-devil on wheels. The two of them dare the girl to conform to their evil pranks, and half scapegoat, half brave-hearted knight, she falls in. It’s the way pre-teens haze each other, because while Tina and Gisela may be on the cusp of adolescence, the girl and the boy are smaller and younger, and eons more sensitive. “Have you ever dry-humped a girl?” Gisela confronts Ola. But “the girl” (she remains unnamed, generic as she is and isn’t, throughout the film) enters the topic of relations between the sexes at her own age-appropriate level: “I read somewhere that you can love somebody because you’re used to them.”
As the girl and the boy get used to each other, the camera style changes somewhat. The once separate positions for them, such as facing each other, the camera panning, moving, or cutting between them, after a certain point become two-shots as the children come to share the same wonder in nature and people, primarily each other. But this film is hardly a little love story. At nine and ten years old, these two are mostly concerned with finding ways to fend for themselves without falling prey to bigger bullies, kids and grown-ups alike. Ola prods her and dares her, to jump off the high dive into the lake and to spring from the hay loft in his barn. In time we see it’s not the heights that put her off, but the water, just as Ola confides in her that what scares him is inhaling in the water's depths. “I’m afraid of going blind and not being able to see,” she reveals, and we’re reminded of how much our point of view in this film has come to depend on hers as she bridges the abyss between being a child and being a girl.
Beyond her perilous fieldwork of exploring girlhood as the malleable sidekick of battling prima donna cousins, our heroine does another kind of research, pulling from books the images that make sense of her present life — maps, photographs, diagrams and drawings — and posting them on her corkboard for ongoing perusal. In the solitary days she has managed to steal from selfish and inept adult supervision (a secret she guards like the golden fleece), she would rather catch tadpoles and watch them sprout legs than see Tina lip-synch Abba in a red negligee.
Aping adults on one misbegotten venture, she mixes up her own cocktail and finds herself stretched out the next morning in a toy swimming pool after a dream of drowning, her one waking nightmare. Yet this dark scene opens to what is literally the “high point” of the film. True to the cinematic wonders of Hoyte van Hoytema’s lensing, a giant, glistening grey and yellow balloon billows through the sky like the sun in the clouds and lands before her eyes. Out crawls a man who will truly whisk her away, up, up, and away to a vista of all that seemed so big and yet, from this height, becomes so small. In this fleeting moment, an already lyrical film becomes magical.
A final scene in which the parents return home shows the girl now running, unselfconsciously, right past a mirror, but when she doubles back, focuses in the looking glass, sweeps her hair from her face and fixes her gaze, the last glance pulls her eyes away. Still facing the mirror, her eyes find the camera, and they look at us.
The Girl (Flickan)
Director: Fredrik Edfeldt; Producer: David Olsson; Screenplay: Karin Arrhenius; Cinematographer: Hoyte van Hoytema; Editors: Therese Elfström, Malin Lindström; Sound: Per Sundström; Design: Lars Strömsten, Bernhard Winkler; Music: Dan Berridge.
Cast: Blanca Engström, Shanti Roney, Annika Hallin, Calle Lindqvist, Tova Magnusson-Norling, Lief Andrée, Ia Langhammer, Emma Wigfeldt, Michelle Vistam, Vidar Fors, Mats Blomgren.
Color, 35mm wide screen, 100 min. In Swedish with English subtitles.