Thursday, January 17, 2019

Skenbart: En film om tåg / Illusive Tracks (Sweden, 2003)

(Spoilers) Skenbart: En film om tåg, which didn't really reach the English-speaking world (but for various film festivals, mostly LGBTQ) as Illusive Tracks, is an entertaining if slightly schizophrenic — and unjustly unknown — neo-noir farcical black comedy that truly deserves discovery outside of its home country of Sweden.
Set at Christmas time 1945, the movie revolves around the bumbling do-gooder, Gunnar (Gustaf Hammarsten of Brüno [2009 / trailer]), a Wittgenstein-reading editor of a small publishing house who has quit his job to go to Berlin to help with the post-war rebuilding efforts. Also on the Berlin Express he boards are a war-injured soldier (Robert Gustafsson), a ticketless Catholic doctor (Magnus Roosmann) out to murder his wife (although he would prefer that his mistress do the deed), the mistress Marie (Anna Björk) and the wife Karin (Kristina Törnqvist), a gay couple, two nuns and some two or three dozen war refugees on their way home. The movie interweaves a variety of narrative threads, but for the most part the focus is on the disastrous results of Gunnar's attempts to do good, which are not all that noir, and the noirish narrative of the murderous doctor and the two women in the doc's life. Of the two strands, the latter has the most interesting developments, while the former almost becomes predictable because one quickly comes to realize that if Gunnar is involved, it will go wrong.
To say the film is idiosyncratic is perhaps a bit of an understatement. To what extent the director Peter Dalle, who also wrote the script and took on the role of the train's almost-Teutonic acting, uptight conductor, consciously emulates the directorial and narrative playfulness of the Coen Brothers (Blood Simple [1984 / trailer], The Hudsucker Proxy [1994 / trailer], The Man Who Wasn't There [2001 / trailer], and so much more) is open to discussion, but the incongruent but well-conceived intermingling of B&W period setting, humor, crime and excellent cinematography often call the Hollywood auteur duo to mind. Dalle may not quite be of equal visual or narrative caliber, and his humor is often crasser (see: the excessive puking of the refugees), but his film is nevertheless a tightly scripted, highly creative farce that is both a visual pleasure and blackly funny.
That said, the tribulations of the soldier, like the results of Gunnar's attempts to do good, do become a bit predictable — whenever he appears, one comes to know his injuries will only increase — but the consistency of his bad luck and positive attitude only serve to make the humor of his last two appearances in the movie doubly as funny. Likewise, Gunnar's easy and nonjudgmental acceptance of the sexuality of Pompe (Gösta Ekman [28 July 1939 – 1 April 2017]) and Sixten (Lars Amble [10 Aug 1939 – 20 Aug 2015]), a gay couple whose closest equivalent is perhaps Martha and George of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966 / trailer), is extremely contemporary for a movie set in 1945 — but then, characters in many films often display attitudes that differ from those common to the temporal setting. Indeed, "realistic" is not an adjective usually bantered when talking of celluloid farces of this ilk.
Gunnar's clumsiness transcends imagination: literally, no act he does, good or otherwise, leaves those around him unharmed. And while one cannot help but feel sorry for him by the end of the film, his general clumsiness and disaster-proneness prove to be truly deadly: arguably, by the last scene, he has committed unintentional manslaughter by the dozen(s).
As for the murderous triangle of the doc and two women, the big twist at the end won't catch the more observant all that off guard, even if it might not really hold water all that tightly if one ruminates about all that must have transpired the days, weeks, months prior to the train's departure. The doc, in any event, is a truly repulsive person, and while for much of the movie one assumes his Christian justifications are merely blather he uses to control his mistress, by the end of the movie one realizes he is very much a "faithful" hypocrite. He would be a grotesque exaggeration were it not that he and his self-righteousness are a relatively realistic if unintentional (and biting) reflection of the contemporary religious right of America: evil, in the end, is only evil if "the others" do it. (Which is why Trump is truly making a rare truthful statement when he says that he could shoot someone and not lose voters/supporters.)
On occasion, Skenbart: En film om tåg calls to mind some of the better German Edgar Wallace thrillers of the early 1960s, though the question of "who dunnit?" is never as much in the forefront here as in those earlier movies. Still, some of the more obscure POV shots call back to similar shots found in, say, Wallace films as diverse as The Indian Scarf (1963) and The Hand of Power (1968), and the doctor, a fairly threatening figure in a Santa Claus mask, also bring to mind the masked killers found in those films and so many slashers since then. One scene is also a cute visual reference to Hitchcock's overrated Vertigo (1958 / trailer), while the setting as a whole recalls any number of earlier crime films or noirs set aboard a train, from (again) Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938 / trailer) to The Narrow Margin (1952 / trailer) to Lars von Trier's oddly forgotten Europa aka Zentropa (1991 / trailer), not to mention the first version of the classic murder-on-a-train tale, Murder on the Orient Express (1974 / trailer). Indeed, not only does the Orient Express make a quick cameo in the background during the closing scene, but much like in that movie, the premeditating murderer(s) of the movie remain unpunished.
It is a true shame that an obvious labor of love like Skenbart: En film om tåg remains so unknown and overlooked by the world. It is a film that should appeal to many, but is perhaps a bit too bizarre and blackly humorous (not to mention foreign) to draw in the masses, despite its great cinematography and entertaining narrative. In the end, what Skenbart: En film om tåg is above all else is a cult movie waiting to be discovered. Help make that happen.

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