Lukas Moodysson, the Swedish director back from the dead

Lukas Moodysson, director of Lilya 4-Eva and Container talks about his new (and most accomplished) film We Are the Best! in which three Stockholm teenagers form a punk bank.

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Lukas Moodysson is lounging in the lib­rary of a London hotel wearing an all-black ensemble – wide-brimmed hat, cardigan, shirt, trousers, boots. The Johnny Cash effect is undermined only by the plump, salmon-pink handbag sitting at his feet. I remark primly that I thought it was a woman’s bag. “Well, it is,” he says, stroking his neat, silver-laced beard. “But I am a woman.”

Like much of what the 45-year-old film-maker says, this comes off as humorous without technically being a joke. Most of us will simply be glad he’s in a jaunty mood. It’s doubtful that a grouch could have made a movie like We Are the Best! (in cinemas now), a riotous and touching comedy about three 13-year-old girls – the owlish Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), her pixie-faced, mohawk-flaunting chum Klara (Mira Grosin) and the demure Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) – who form an after-school punk band in 1980s Stockholm. An inability to play their instruments proves to be no obstacle at all. They’ve got it where it counts: snarling energy, naive charm, optimism. That goes double for the movie.

It’s been more than a decade since anyone had a good time at a Lukas Moodysson film. His finest picture, Together, set in a commune of 1970s Swedish hippies and their children, was released in 2000. Since then, it’s been wall-to-wall misery: trafficked child prostitutes (Lilya 4-Ever), the amateur porn industry (A Hole in My Heart), the unmanageable chaos of modern life (Container), conflict both marital and global (Mammoth). When the trailer for We Are the Best! was unveiled at the London Film Festival the relief was profound: could this be Together again? Sure enough, the new film thrives on the same mixture of nostalgia and scepticism, merriment and melancholia. Based on the graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife Coco, it couldn’t be watched in any state other than complete delight.

How must it be, I wonder, finally to have made another movie that everyone actually likes? “I don’t think everyone likes it,” he chuckles. But what beef could someone have with such an exuberant, compassionate picture? “Ah, now you are asking me to repeat negative criticism!” A few home-grown critics, he says, tend to review him rather than his films. In Sweden, Moodysson was an established poet before he branched out into cinema in 1998 with Fucking Åmål (called Show Me Love in the UK), a perceptive love story about two provincial teenage girls. At Sweden’s prestigious Guldbagge film awards, where it scooped all the main prizes, Moodysson gave a long and inflammatory anti-elitist speech before leaving the stage with his middle finger raised to the booing crowd.

A contrarian he may be. But that’s not the whole story. He is also suspicious of a consensus, even one that works in his favour. The popularity of We Are the Best! seems to faze him slightly. “I’m surprised when anyone likes what I’ve done. My feeling about life is that there is always a combination of answers to any question, so it’s strange when everyone agrees. I know life is more complicated than that.”

He has spent his career wrestling with this polarity. As far back as Fucking Åmål horror was munching away at the edges of his work: that film was originally conceived as a tale of two sisters living next door to a serial killer. By the time of A Hole in My Heart, with its close-up dissections of artificial vaginas, and a climax in which one character vomits into the mouth of another, despair appeared to have consumed him. Not so, he insists. “I wrote parts of it while on holiday in Greece with my wife and our children. We had just had another baby and I was feeling so happy. Sometimes it takes happiness to open you up to terrible things, and vice versa.”

Not that he wrote the new script with his head in a noose. While teaching at film school in Helsinki, he asked his class to make a hopeful film about the difficulties of life. “I decided with We Are the Best! to give that assignment to myself – to show that life can be shit but the possibilities are out there.” It also marks his return to cinema after taking four years off to write two novels following the death of his father. “It wasn’t like I said, ‘This is over.’ But I felt very tired of making films. My father died unexpectedly of a heart attack and I was at the hospital. It was only five minutes after he died and he was lying there – this is a funny story even though it’s about dead fathers – and I thought, ‘I have no interest in bringing a camera here. I just want to go home and write.’ So I wondered if maybe I’m not a film director at all because this enormous experience didn’t make me want to make a movie.”

The hiatus did him good, and We Are the Best! feels zingy and fresh. “I wanted to do something where people jump up and down and scream into microphones and play drums and survive and their parents might not care about them but they still have a good time.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double