Much has been made of the fact that the Swedish film Show Me Love (directed by Lukas Moodysson and originally titled Fucking Amal) was so popular when it premiered in 1998 that it unseated Titanic at the box office in some countries.
But the two films actually have more in common than their success, for they both tell stories of love and courage in the midst of the worst of human nature. In Titanic, the betrayal, greed, and mob mentality is triggered by impending death; in Show Me Love, it’s triggered by puberty.
The movie follows Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg) and Elin (Alexandra Dahlström), two high school girls stuck in the small town Swedish town of Amal, which they despise (hence the original name). Agnes is in love with classmate Elin, who barely knows Agnes exists until Elin kisses her on a dare one night and sets in motion a chain of events that will force them both to make significant decisions.
When the film opens, Elin and Agnes are drowning in the inevitability and narrow-mindedness of their world, where girls are not encouraged to dream big, but to cultivate expertise in “appearance, clothes, and makeup” and other support functions:
ELIN: Do you know what my nightmare is? That I’ll live here in Fucking Åmål and have a family and children and a car and a house…all those things. And then my husband will leave me for a younger and prettier girl, so I’m just left with screaming children. It’s completely meaningless!
That this same complaint is made by legions of girls in small towns and suburbs across America is just one of the reasons this film cuts across national and cultural boundaries so well. Show Me Love is as much about the universally stultifying effects of sexism on girls as it is about homophobia or love.
On the surface, Elin is a popular, life-of-the-party type of girl, but she exhibits all the characteristics of a girl on the verge of coming out. Her extensive forays into heterosexuality have left her bored, even as her sister chides her for making out with “seventy-thousand” guys.
Elin is desperately searching for something that she can’t quite name, and unable to find it, she’s drinking and experimenting halfheartedly with drugs to escape. She blames the town, but as she illustrates in conversation with Agnes, what Elin is really fighting is herself:
ELIN: Why are you so weird? I mean, you’re not stupid or anything, just different.
AGNES (smiling): You are weird too.
ELIN: Am I? I mean, I want to be weird. Or not weird, but I don’t want to be like all the others. Though sometimes I think I’m just like everyone else.
It is precisely because Agnes is so different that Elin is simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by her.
But Agnes is busy fighting demons of her own, and unlike Elin, she doesn’t have a sister or friends with whom to commiserate. She’s a loner, pouring her heart out to her computer while fending off questions from her well-meaning parents. Agnes does hang out with a wheelchair-bound girl Viktoria occasionally, but their relationship quickly disintegrates when Agnes takes out her frustrations on Viktoria after a disappointing birthday party:
AGNES (to Viktoria): You can go home and take your perfume with you. We are friends only because no one else wants to be our friend. We are friends only because we feel sorry for each other.
That the film dares to show such cruelty in Agnes is unusual since the audience is supposed to sympathize with Agnes, and the cruelty she displays towards Viktoria is not exactly endearing.
This is the genius of Show Me Love: it lays bare the worst of human behavior and leaves you feeling that there’s still hope for the human race anyway. It accomplishes this by refusing to make cardboard cutouts of its characters, instead showing that everyone is capable of good and evil under the right circumstances.
For example, Elin tells everyone at a party that kissing Agnes was “horrible” to keep anyone from thinking she liked it, and then cruelly breaks up with Johann, a boy who is desperately in love with her, for showing weakness in standing up to his friend. Agnes is vicious to Victoria at her birthday party, but forgiving of Elin when she apologizes later for the dare. Viktoria is initially supportive of Agnes’ love for Elin, then tells everyone at school about it after Agnes verbally attacks her. Agnes’ mother is very positive about lesbianism until she finds out her daughter is one, at which point she becomes worried and upset and violates her own ethics by reading Agnes’ journal.
These are just some of the ways in which Show Me Love demonstrates the power of context, timing, and luck in determining our behavior.
Unlike so many other films,which gloss over or sugarcoat the effects of teenage cruelty,Show Me Love is unflinchingly honest in showing the serious and long-term scars that it can create. From suicide to drug and alcohol abuse to dreams deferred, the film is artful in its ability to demonstrate the damage cruelty can inflict, without ever veering into preachiness.
Another film about teenage lesbian love, All Over Me, addresses the same subject, but set in a big city (New York). There are some clear parallels between these two films, as both are gritty, honest portrayals of teenage life, both require the particular location in which they’re set to tell their story, and both are excellent films. All Over Me is less concerned with showing the co-existence of good and evil in its characters, however, focusing more on the impact of an individual’s actions, while Show Me Love revolves more around the power of group behavior.
Show Me Love is not without its flaws – it is full of loose ends, maintains an erratic pace, and transitions abruptly in some places. But somehow, these things seem to work for the movie, instead of against it. The lack of a polished, Hollywood-style feeling only makes the story seem that much more realistic, but at the same time the film never comes across as amateur or low-budget.
Show Me Love is at its most powerful in demonstrating that finding a kindred soul is instrumental to getting you through the ugliness, even helping you rise above it. This is the meta-message the movie finally delivers: cruelty and ugliness exist, but so do love and beauty. For Agnes and Elin, who finally find this beauty and love in each other, their relationship becomes not just a luxury, but a necessity.
For this and many other reasons, Show Me Love is likely to stay with you long after Titanic is only a distant memory.