In terms of subject matter, Lisa Aschan’s feature debut She Monkeys shares more than a little with the phenomenal psychological ballet body-horror from 2010, Black Swan. Both take place in the world of an athletically demanding art/sport (equestrian vaulting or ‘voltiege’ in this case); both are concerned with the nature of performance versus technical ability; and finally, both are centred around a psychosexual power struggle between two young girls. It seems pertinent and interesting to acknowledge these similarities since the films themselves, although linked through subject and thematic content, are – like the recent Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless is to its thematic predecessor, The Mask – strikingly dissimilar in execution and tone.
Where Swan’s ballet world setting was at least somewhat familiar, the world of equestrian vaulting – an artform/sport which combines horseback riding, gymnastics and dance – is a relatively obscure setting for this power struggle drama. The narrative begins with Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser), an attractive yet slightly boyish looking teenager, trying out for her local equestrian vaulting team. Scrutinised by a handful of whispering would-be-teammates, Emma performs her audition atop a dummy horse before being welcomed to join them in the line-up. Here, Emma soon meets Cassandra (Molin), a lusciously attractive blonde with a slightly disconcerting manner. She offers to coach Emma in her technique and they quickly become friends. “I can teach anyone anything”, she suggestively proclaims.
The performances from the two non-actors at the centre of this psychological drama are particularly impressive. It is (obviously) a role which demands a great deal of physicality from the young girls and the horse riding scenes are accomplished with impressive authenticity. Renowned for her tendency to tell a story using actions and images as opposed to dialogue, much of the film unfolds in silence. As the characters on the screen engage in their actions, motives frequently masked behind a hushed facade, we the audience are tasked to identify with their behaviour which becomes an emotionally tiring action in itself. Many Hollywood/mainstream productions pride themselves on their against-the-grain ambiguity, Black Swan being one of them (or consider perhaps the spinning top at the end of Inception), but rarely will a mainstream production be this withholding with the characters motives. Emma and Cassandra seem to flit between sharing a competitive and a loving relationship, both of them disturbing darker sides of their psyches in doing so. But to what end? It is difficult to deduce who is in control throughout this battle of will and strength. Perhaps the answer lies in a particular characters muffled smile in the film’s final moments. Or is that a grimace? All of these subtleties and ambiguities are conveyed with aplomb by Paradeiser and Molin.
Like Brokeback Mountain or Winter’s Bone, Aschan’s feature can be read as a revisionist take on the classic formula of the Western. There are the obvious iconographical elements incorporated – horses, tumbleweeds, rifles – but it is in its subversion of the formula that its relationship to it really comes to the fore. In the grand tradition of Ford or Hawks, the film has a duality to it, encompassed in the power-play between Cassandra and Emma. Only in this outback, women are far more prevalent than men, threatening the inherent manliness of the classic American genre. There are barely three male speaking parts in the film – Emma’s struggling single father being one of them – and both meander through the proceedings, bemused and humiliated by the actions of the women around them. In an uncomfortable side plot, Emma’s preteen sister Sara (an unbelievably mature performance from Isabella Lindquist) navigates her own personal crisis as she begins to feel the compulsions of a woman; men may be a dab hand at shooting a rifle, but they scarcely know much about picking out children’s bikinis.
If there can be any criticism of She Monkeys (I challenge you to pronounce Apflickorna, its Swedish title) it is that the narrative ultimately doesn’t feel as satisfying as it could have been. Indeed, it is compelling throughout as the tensions rise and the facades begin to melt. In Black Swan’s thunderous third act ballet, director Darren Aronofsky takes the audience to a place of almost orgasmic ecstasy before concluding the journey of his heroine who had realised her true potential. Whilst it mirrors a similar progression, Emma’s journey is never as pronounced. With all the ambiguity and subdued emotions and motivations that characterise the relationships, the climax isn’t quite as cathartic as it could be. Perhaps this reaction is just the result of a mainstream conditioned mind hankering for a mainstream conclusion. I’d like to think so.
Nevertheless, you won’t see a better psychosexual, lesbian, equestrian vaulting, revisionist Swedish Western drama this year.
And you should see it.