Thursday, July 22, 2010

Let The Right One In

If you've been stuck under a rock for the last couple of years, you may not be aware that vampires are all the rage right now. Since I'm not a huge fan of scary movies, scary monsters, or scary things in general, I've managed to sidestep any real exposure to the recent vampiremania, though a few weeks back I was hustled into seeing the most recent installment in the Twilight series at the movies with my 11-yr-old neice. As it turns out, American tween girls are not the only ones driving this movement; fascination with the undead is an international phenomenon. Last night, after dinner with a few friends and colleagues, we watched the 2008 Swedish film Låt den rätte komma in ("Let the Right One In"), based on the novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Like the Twilight saga, the story centers on a young vampire-- or, at least, "young" in her bodily form. (She's been 12-yrs-old for the last 200 years.) And like the Twilight saga, it's part murder mystery, part bildungsroman, part love story, and a whole lot of blood. But unlike Twilight, it's not overwrought or melodramatic, and it doesn't have a cloud of global doom (are vampires or werewolves going to take over?) hanging over everything and threatening the existence of the world as we know it. Let the Right One In is, in its own way, just as erotic (and homoerotic) as its American counterpart, but it trains its focus on the subtleties, the complexities and the intensities of just one young relationship, which is as awkward as any other young relationship, only with the superadded complication of involving a vampire.

Let the Right One in is an intensely quiet film. It's set in a working-class suburb of Stockholm, and the glistening, snowy landscape is the perfect mise en scène, projecting as it does the feeling that everything is dead, and yet somehow not, at the same time. The two main characters, Eli (the young vampiress, played by Lina Leandersson) and Oskar (her would-be paramour, played by Kåre Hedebrant), are also very quiet kids, and the sparse dialogue that they're given in the film is almost awkwardly direct and succinct. Both of them emanate vulnerability through huge, expressive eyes, which mask a hidden rage (behind Oskar's) and a hidden violence (behind Eli's). And because so very little is actually said between them, the love-bond that they develop on the basis of their shared misery and loneliness as outcasts becomes like a third character, melding them together and yet somehow maintaining their difference both from each other and from the relationship that they share. The sexual tension between Oskar and Eli-- only a "pre-sexual" tension really, exploratory and hesitant and insecure-- is simultaneously innocent and illicit, provoking the kind of uneasiness on the viewer's part that we are all trained to feel at the shameful spectacle of prepubescents coming into their own. Because this is a vampire film, there is violence, though the worst violence is not the murderous bloodsucking of Eli, but rather the psychic, physical and emotional violence suffered by Oskar, whose slight frame and gentle demeanor make him the daily target of a truly vicious schoolyard bully. Because she grows to love him, Eli tries to impart some of her killer instinct to Oskar-- an instinct that she sees him already harboring deep within, though he is unable to actualize it-- and that fundamentally protective gesture is what allows Oskar to look past the incommensurable natural divide that separates them.

I don't want to give away any spoilers, so I won't tell you the real meaning behind the film's title. But it won't spoil anything for me to say that the injunction "let the right one in" should be heeded in all relationships, living or (un)dead. Especially when we're young, or vulnerable, or scared, or feeling alone, finding the "right one" to let in is a precarious undertaking. And especially in those cases, mistakes can be-- literally or figuratively-- deadly.

I never thought I'd say this about a vampire flick, but Let the Right One In is one of the most surprisingly tender and touching films I've seen since, I don't know, maybe Lost in Translation. My hosts last night told me that there is a remake in the works here in the U.S., to be released sometime in the fall. I'm sure it won't be as good as the original, at least in part because many of the more controversial sub-themes doubtlessly will be left out so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of American audiences. That's too bad, really, because it's those gray areas that are the emotional heart of the story. So try to see the original if you can. Here's the trailer:


David Baker said...

A word of caution to American audiences: there are two subtitle translations floating around out there: the original theatrical subtitles, and a second translation that was produced specifically for the DVD release. The former is far superior to the latter, but it can be very difficult to know what you're getting at the point of purchase / rental.

Happily, this is generally well-documented on the Web. For instance: shows a wonderful comparison of screenshots between the two versions.

Thanks for writing this brief analysis! I think you're spot-on. It's a brutally touching film.

Lorenzo said...

I love vampire films, but refuse to have anything to do with the Twilight abominations. Except as things to mock. (Good mockings here, here and here.)

Let the Right One In sounds like something to look forward to, thanks for letting your readers know about it.