Emotional extremist

Simon Staho asked Danish critics not to review his new film "Love Is in the Air", because he thought they were too old to get it. Now in the youth competition at Berlin, the film is a riotous teen musical bubbling over with pop and rainbow colours about four young people who journey into the night in search of their sexual identities. Kim Skotte paints a portrait of an uncompromising Danish auteur who is not so easy to pin down.

simon-staho-portræt

Director Simon Staho. Photo: Joachim Adrian

Jaws hit floors when Danish film critics met with the director Simon Staho on the occasion of his new teenage musical, "Love Is in the Air". The usually so tight-lipped and ascetic director was cavorting around in knee pants and a slick pompadour in a swarm of coloured lights. "The time has come to celebrate hope," he declared. "Misanthropy has become the sure path to a lucrative career in movies". A rather surprising statement coming from a director known for stylized and gloomy-Scandinavian films in which suicide and confronting the meaninglessness of life is the order of the day.

“Love Is in the Air” is not so different from Staho’s other films. They are all about love – not delicate or romantic love, but uncompromising love as the only thing that makes life worth living, or death worth dying.

Before the sneak preview the 38-year-old director asked Danish critics not to review the film, because he thought they were too old and set in their ways to appreciate the film’s purported youthful passion and energy. If nothing else, he effectively succeeded in, once again, keeping Danish audiences away from a Simon Staho film.

As a filmmaking prophet, Staho is not honoured in his own country. Denmark does not have much of a tradition for uncompromising films plumbing emotional abysses. Dreyer was a long time ago and Denmark never had a Bergman. In fact, Staho has been met with a lot more understanding in Sweden, where he has also shot most of his films.

Anyway, why wouldn’t an upbeat musical for teens with tons of pop music be a hit? But in Denmark, as most other places, teen films are a tough sell if they aren’t American. So, even if Staho was suddenly slinging out cotton candy, pop tunes and a booming YES to life, the whole project still carried an unmistakable whiff of emotional extremism. For a generation that grew up with Disney’s High School Musical, this stylised story about carnival-costumed teens roaming the neon-flickering labyrinth of the night in search of their sexual identity is not directly interchangeable with all the hard-to-resist temptations out there. It didn’t help to sell the film, either, that Staho didn’t even make a nod to the kind of music kids today listen to, preferring to blast Danish hits from the last decade or two. Mom and dad’s playlist? Puh-lease!

As so often before, Staho had made an untactical film that stuck in the craw of normality. And way too many kids lost out on the film’s many unusual qualities and unforgettable moments, those shining glimpses bringing it home that the heart is a dilettante as long as it beats hard. The bottom line is that the film is not so different from Staho’s other films. They are all about love – not delicate or romantic love, but uncompromising love as the only thing that makes life worth living, or death worth dying. The biggest difference between Love Is in the Air and Staho’s other films is that this time he appears to have made a film that actually looks like it wants to be loved.

"Entertainment is Satan," Staho is often quoted as saying. There has hardly been a more effective way of standing outside the prevailing cultural currents since the mid-’90s. The entertainment frosting that makes it all go down so effortlessly has oozed deep into the remains of what was used to be known as the avant-garde. Staho’s films don’t go down easy. They are gnarly. Not to provoke for the sake of provoking, but provocations on behalf of love. Love means risking all, otherwise what’s the point? As a result, many people consider Staho’s films to be hopelessly immature. "All you need is love," but only if you are ready to kill for love or go to the grave for the one you love – preferably holding hands, like the two lesbian girls in "Warriors of Love" who end up hanging themselves together. Warriors, a black and white or, perhaps more accurately, mouse-grey and very slow film, was accused of being a hermetic exercise in style. Personally, Staho considered the film "a knife in the heart" and "an invitation to dance." Not surprisingly, it was not a big hit.

So, who is this Danish filmmaker who prefers to work with Swedish actors, because, unlike their Danish colleagues, they wouldn’t dream of lending their face to hawk washing machines or mobile phones on TV? Who is this filmmaker who early on forged a stern and unbending bond of destinies with the now famous Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt and discovered Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth Salander), casting her as the title role in Daisy Diamond based on nothing more than her passport picture, knowing she would burn a hole in the screen? Who is this director who shuns the tepid Danish middle-tone, who is obsessed with the idea of purity and seems most closely related to Bergman’s gravity and Roy Andersson’s knack for revealing humanity in grotesque tableaux?

All attempts to penetrate into Staho’s personal life are repelled by a Teflon shield of Zen-like, uncompromising statements. Every new film is introduced with a flurry of conflicting signals about the meaning and meaninglessness of life and art. Nonetheless, a brief biography can be cobbled together:

A left-handed young man grew up in Copenhagen and was not like most other people. In 1985, at age 13, he read James Joyce’s Ulysses to get the bare essentials in place. A few years later he was in Athens, Georgia, attending film classes, having saved up for tuition by working the night shift at a provincial Danish slaughterhouse. He did not even consider applying to the National Film School of Denmark. A school like that could kill an artist. In 1995, when he thought Lars von Trier’s unconventional film company Zentropa wasn’t doing anything interesting, he pitched a loose idea to studio head Peter Ålbæk Jensen, who gave him carte blanche to make his first film."Wildside" (1998), introducing Mads Mikkelsen, made clear that Staho was one to watch, even if opinions about the film varied widely.

That’s pretty much how things have gone ever since. Staho’s short film "NOW" (2003) has just one line of dialogue. "Day and Night" (2004), consisting of just two shots, tracks an architect (Persbrandt) who has decided to commit suicide. "Bang Bang Orangutang" (2005) is about a man (Persbrandt again) who runs over his own son and kills him. "Daisy Diamond" (2007) is the story of a young mother who is worn so thin by her colicky baby’s crying that she, like the sorely tested audience, eventually just wants to strangle the kid.

"Heaven’s Heart" (2008), a newly mature drama about two couples, once again with shades of Bergman, prompted speculation that Staho had finally grown up. He then immediately put an end to such speculation with his "teen films" "Warriors of Love (2009) and "Love Is in the Air" (2011).

Is Staho a misfit genius or an incurable dilettante? Are his films exercises in style or stripped down to essentials? Are the screenplays he writes with Peter Asmussen consistently over the top or simply free of compromise and convention? The jury is still out on that. Staho’s next film is not a musical for teens, but an ordinary film for adults. Even though the last thing a film by the emotional extremist Simon Staho could ever be accused of is being “ordinary"

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