The cinema has made icons of some cities. The global reach of Hollywood means that we are all familiar with the streets and suburbs of Los Angeles or the tramscapes of San Francisco. Woody Allen and any number of films noir draw their inspiration from New York. The films of the French New Wave had a symbiotic relationship with Paris, while Berlin has also been totemic in the history of cinema, from the 1927 Symphony of a City through to the present. In Italy, Rome has been central to the narrative of many films that reached an international audience. Yet Stockholm has never received similar treatment. Indeed, as the director of Stockholm My Love, Mark Cousins said in the Q and A after showing his film in Edinburgh, Swedish cinema has tended to concentrate on rural and small town Sweden. Perhaps this is not so surprising in a country with vast rural regions and few cities.
Stockholm My Love is a film that urbanists, planners and architects should see. Its storyline is itself quintessential modernist minimalism. A young architect, played by singer Neneh Cherry, daughter of an African engineer who had migranted to Sweden, is suffering from the trauma of having accidentally killed an old man while driving her car a year earlier. Now more acutely an outsider, she wanders the city seeking solace and redemption, against a sound track reflecting her moods and the urban soundscape. At first she addresses her thoughts in English to her late father, then in the middle section of the film, in Swedish to the man her car had struck, and finally she moves in silence communicating with the city itself through quotes in Swedish on the screen, with English subtitles. She rediscovers laughter, and herself, as she rides the roller coaster in the Tivoli amusement park.
The early sections focus heavily on Sweden's modernist architecture - Cherry's character was due to give a lecture about it, but overcome by depression, she visits the buildings instead. Sweden's planners and designers sought to create houses and places that would make people happy. High quality design was yoked to egalitarian principles. The camera lingers on the geometrically sharp lines, simple facades and rationally ordered public spaces that survived while cities across Europe were being destroyed during World War II ("Sweden doesn't do wars...").
The assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, in 1986, while walking home from a cinema in the city centre, is depicted by TV news coverage from the time, and marks the end of Sweden's innocence. Stuff happens even in bland, consenual Scandinavia, mirroring the shock of the unavoidable car accident that killed an old man. Happiness is temporary and conditional. Later social housing estates were not built to such generous standards (though still look far better than UK equivalents) and have become home to migrants and refugees, people from diverse cultures, raising questions about the universalist assumptions of modernism.
The domination of nature implicit in the modernist project is also exposed as a weakness. Insects provide a parable for recovery from grief - take one step at a time. There is solace in Stockholm's greenery, while naked bathing in the cold waters gets the blood pumping again. Nor can even the most refined and secular amongst us sever ourselves from mortality any more than did those who came before us. In an impressive sequence Cherry, filmed from behind, walks ever smaller, the straight line through an avenue of tall trees in a cemetery towards a chapel, where she can only squint at the symbols of religions the other side of a locked door. It is a part of her rehabilitation and recovery.
In the end, and again visually, we see that just as the past is always with us, so it is in Stockholm, where for all the modernity there is also a pre-modernist townscape, and the ever-present, enduring and reflective presence of water, the wonder of snowflakes and the morning and evening light. Stockholm is a city connected by bridges that enable people to cross from one side to the other, and for Cherry's character to cross from despair to acceptance, to move on.
Sometimes the camera picks up and stays with images that slow the film to the point where some viewers might get restless. The tone is poetic, and as Cousins quipped, "It's not an action movie, it's a re-action movie". At a time when the links between place and health are becoming increasingly recognised, Stockholm My Love goes beyond concerns about access to basic sanitation or links between car-dependency and rising rates of obesity. It asks more fundamental questions about how places and feelings inter-relate, about places that offer refuge and can help us get by when things - as they will at some point - get hard to bear.
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