Weirdness In the Woods: Johnsen’s Latest an Intriguing, Complicated Love Triangle
Norwegian filmmaker Sara Johnsen’s latest film, All That Matters Is Past is a curiously maddening film about star crossed lovers mixed with a light incestuous streak. While this is mostly an engaging scenario, the serpentine plotting often makes it feel as if it was necessary to fill the slim central conflict with a lot of extra flourishes. That said, Johnsen’s film is more often than not an exquisite examination of an earthy, natural world, one dictated by attraction and decomposition.
Mysteriously, a pair of ragtag forest dwellers in some remote Norwegian woodland quickly construct a trap for something or someone. The man, William (Kristoffer Joner) climbs a tree while his female partner, Janne (Maria Bonnevie) throws him a large rock. Quickly, we learn they mean to use this as a weapon to maim or kill a third man that comes upon them in the woods. As a strikingly violent scene takes place, we learn that the other man is Ruud (David Dencik), William’s brother. A pregnant police officer, Ragnhild (Maria Heiskanen) is our omniscient narrator, and we go back in time three months after a quick backstory fills us on in Janne and her involvement with the two brothers, beginning when they emigrated from Sweden as young boys. It turns out that Janne and William, who had been thick as thieves to the chagrin of jealous brother Ruud, have been separated for some time. But when he mysteriously returns to her life, she leaves her current husband and step-children (and her job as a teacher) to go live with him in a cabin in the woods. While there, we learn more complicated details about all three of these people, all which lead up to the violent tragedy we are first witness to.
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of All That Matters Is Past is the excellent cinematography from John Andreas Anderson, who has been DP on many recent notable Scandinavian titles (like last year’s much hailed Headhunters). Nature has a lush, glorious presence on screen here, the forests and foliage characters unto themselves, exuding a foreboding omnipresence that sets just the right mood for the finicky proceedings. Insects, birds, birth and death are all continuous cycles on display, much like the relationship between our three main characters, in a metamorphosis about to complete another (final) rotation. The selective Marie Bonnevie is always an excellent presence, an enigmatic and hard to decipher character here.
We see her teaching Dylan Thomas to a class as they decipher the meaning of “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” and after abandoning her stability once more, we spy her reading Anna Karenina in the forest, her own existence perhaps having twisted parallels with Karenina’s ties to two very different men. Kristoffer Joner, quite the burgeoning star from his native country, is a shaggy haired enigma here, the reason for his disappearance unclear and his return due to witnessing catastrophic things during the tsunami never quite spelled out. Maria Heiskanen, an actress with great talents, who recently appeared in Jan Troell’s beautiful 2008 film, Everlasting Moments, manages to make her seemingly superfluous character register with some screen presence, though her existence seems superfluous to the proceedings.
Jansen succeeds in giving us a complicated pair of star crossed lovers, two brothers who love the same woman, herself caught between what each one has to represent, both opposing sides of natural forces. Ruud is described as evil, but he really represents chaos and that which cannot be controlled, one who cruelly destroys animals and their young, while Williams is stability, her constant and near mirror image in the male form. There’s so much history between these three that the film nearly exhausts itself just filling us in on tidbits here and there, which sometimes distracts from getting us to where we may want to be. But overall, Jansen compels us to see her narrative through to the finish.
Reviewed on September 07 at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival – CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA Programme.