In "The Tree of Knowledge" (1981), Nils Malmros recreated with insight and humour his own middleschool class, a group of kids in raging puberty, spinning a web of fatal intrigue around the female protagonist Elin.
"We started shooting in November 2005 - a good time because it gives a lot of autumn to the film. That's how I remember it: hearts were always broken when leaves were falling."
The characters in Malmros’ new film, "Aching Hearts", having gone through their first experiences with the mystery of sexuality, are now struggling to get a grip on their chaotic emotional lives. At the heart of the story, we still find a young girl, Agnete, and her complicated relationships and family life.
Agnete is not Elin from "The Tree of Knowledge", but her experience of painful love is familiar.
YOUTHFUL EMOTIONAL CONFUSION
Why did it take you so long to get back to the same kind of memoir material as in "The Tree of Knowledge"?
“In the early ‘80s, Per Holst, who produced "The Tree of Knowledge", urged me to do a sequel. But I immediately said no. I thought it would be undignified to follow up a successful movie like that, and I wanted to allow "The Tree of Knowledge" to stand for what it was,” Malmros says.
“I did admit that there was a continuation to the story, but I wasn’t sure that it could carry a feature. Also, every time I finish a film, I have the mantra that ‘this is to be my last film.’
“I more or less forgot about the material for "Aching Hearts". Then, when I’d finished "Facing the Truth" (2002), Per Holst brought the subject back up, asking me if I didn’t have a sequel to "The Tree of Knowledge". I sat down with John Mogensen, whom I’ve used as a critical spirit and sparring partner since we wrote "Pain of Love" (1992) together, and told him what I remembered from my high-school years.
“Eventually, we saw that we did have enough material for a story. Only, unlike "The Tree of Knowledge", it wouldn’t be about repressed sexuality as much as about emotional confusion: that weird period in the early 1960s when going out with someone was such serious business, implying a lifetime commitment – when we discovered that you weren’t really in love until you’d been dumped and were unhappily in love.”
Are these characters the same as in "The Tree of Knowledge"?
“A few of them are, albeit with new names. But this film isn’t as deep as "The Tree of Knowledge", nor was it meant to be. The characters have acknowledged their sexuality and, accordingly, it’s not as ambivalent and horrifying, in a Freudian sense, as it is in "The Tree of Knowledge".
'"Aching Hearts" is a completely autonomous film. It can be seen independently of "The Tree of Knowledge". As always, the story is partly authentic. To make up the characters, all I had to do was think about my old schoolmates – they’re in my head, so they’re always around. Working on the script mainly means structuring my memoir material. I started doing that a year before we started shooting, that is, at the end of 2003.”
SHOT OVER THREE YEARS
On the surface, "Aching Hearts" is fairly normal looking, but it was shot in a very non-normal way, over a period of almost three years. Why?
“The cast had to mature to match the story, both physically and mentally. We started shooting in November 2005 – a good time because it gives a lot of autumn to the film. That’s how I remember it: hearts were always broken when leaves were falling.
“We shot in four long periods and three short periods, mainly during school holidays. We had to waituntil school was out in June 2008 to shoot the ending – with the kids’ last day of school and final exams.
“The whole film is shot in sequence. It’s the same concept as in "The Tree of Knowledge", which was shot over nearly two years. It really mattered to the story that the kids age before our eyes. At the time, I dreamt of shooting over four years, but that turned out to be financially impossible.
“I don’t know of any other feature that was shot over such a long period, almost three years, as "Aching Hearts". It’s costly. At one point, we were short two million kroner (268,000 euros, ed.) for the production, and someone suggested shooting the film all at one go. However, I insisted and said in that case, I wouldn’t do the film. Production actually shut down for six months. Then the last money was found, thank goodness, and I had my way.”
How did you find your teenage actors?
“We had 1600 kids at a casting call for young actors. It was crucial to find the right girl for the leading role of Agnete. Simone Tang was fourteen when we screen-tested her. She has an extremely good ear for phrasing dialogue and also happens to be a very talented singer. When we started, she was a short, ungainly girl, but I was convinced she would grow into a beauty before the film was done. It was a gamble, and I won.”
She makes Agnete’s extreme seriousness both compelling and touching.
“Well, that was the intention. Agnete is a quite odd and serious girl. She barely smiles throughout the whole film.”
THE DUPED LOVER
You often construct your stories around male protagonists who are led astray, not to say duped, by women that they can’t figure out. That’s also the case in "Aching Hearts".
“That was simply my experience, and so the stories get that twist. I was fooled – and it was my impression that many others were too.
“In "Aching Hearts", however, the male lead Jonas is partly to blame for being duped. It ties in to his fickleness, which in turn is a reflection of the whole spirit of the early 1960s. The problem, as I said, was that every time you got involved in a relationship, you felt that it was for the rest of your life. You saw it as terribly serious and tried to cram some mighty emotions into it. But exactly because the commitment seemed so huge, you also got scared of being trapped, and you always tried to leave a kitty door open, so you could get out of the relationship again – well, instead of saying, ‘You’re so beautiful, it’s me and you, here and now, for as long as it lasts, okay?’ Young people handle it much better that way now, it seems to me.”
Still, the attitude to the male protagonist is far from sentimental or pathetic. It even feels a bit ironic. And your heroine, despite her erotic deceit, is far from a conventional femme fatale?
“No, that’s right. In a way, the story really comes down to her. The character is closely modelled on a girl I used to know. But still there are things in the film that I don’t really understand myself.”
Do you see more differences than basic similarities between the young people you depict and young people today?
“I’m mainly struck by the differences. The pill changed so much. What would the world look like without birth-control pills? Earlier, parents could wield the fear of pregnancy to keep their daughters chaste a lot longer than now. And as far as boys are concerned, the contact I had with the young actors in my film convinced me that, although the erotic competition with its winners and losers still exists, of course, it’s much more laid-back and humorous now. Guys still compete for the prettiest girls, but if ou don’t win, it’s not the end of the world.
“The most visible difference in social interaction from my day to now is that young people, as a matter of course and with their parents’ blessing, sleep over at each other’s houses as early as in high school. That would have been unthinkable in my day”.