*. Movies based on novels almost always have to condense the story quite a bit, and there’s an art to doing this. In brief: you can’t cut anything out that leaves the rest of the story incoherent or unintelligible. I haven’t read the 2004 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist that this movie is based on, and likely never will, but it seems to me that his screenplay (which he insisted on writing himself) falls down quite a bit in this regard.
*. Two items in particular bothered me a lot the first time I saw this movie. In the first place, I had no idea who Hakan was or what his relationship was with Eli. In the novel he’s a paedophile, but this is barely suggested here. I thought he might be Eli’s father. Not knowing this left a major hole in the film for me.
*. The second thing I found baffling was the cutaway shot to Eli’s pubic scar. Again, in the novel it’s explained that “she” is actually a castrated boy. This isn’t mentioned in the movie, where the character is played by a female and the glimpse of the scar is ambiguous. I thought I was looking at female genitalia (I might add here that I have never gone back and freeze-framed the DVD for a better look at the effect). It certainly wasn’t a Crying Game-style reveal. Even Eli’s earlier objection that she’s “not a girl” could be taken different ways. I assumed she meant that she wasn’t young.
*. A minor point: does it matter that we don’t know what message Oskar is tapping out to Eli at the end? Apparetly it’s p-u-s-s which is Swedish for a small kiss.
*. Another minor point. I was surprised to later learn was that the movie is set in 1982. I guess the Rubik’s cube was a hint, and the director Tomas Alfredson felt that there was a real difference between the urban landscape then and now, but I couldn’t tell the difference. The news reports didn’t register with me as anything more than background noise. Sure the clothes all look terrible, but I thought everyone in Sweden dressed like that.
*. Is any of this a big deal? Isn’t ambiguity a good thing? I really like the movie, but I do find it frustrating that significant plot points were not explained. They affect how you view the film.
*. Take the romance angle. It’s a depressing reflection that one of the sweetest, most original, and (most perverse of all) most believable movie love stories in recent years involves a couple of pre-teens, one of whom is a vampire, but there you have it. But what do you have? Does Oskar know at the end that Eli is a boy? Does he understand what the scar means? Or does he not care? Will he be content to cuddle with his exotic “girlfriend”?
*. Is it then a movie with a homosexual subtext? The relationship between Oskar’s father and his drinking buddy seems odd. Many viewers see them as a gay couple, which apparently surprised director Alfredson, who has declared that they are not (for what that’s worth). And then there’s the whole gang of single, middle-aged men who hang out together, with Virginia weirdly floating among them.
*. A similar film to Nosferatu, at least in one particular and peculiar way. There’s no breath of any religious dimension to the proceedings. Would Eli be afraid of a cross? Holy water?
*. It’s not shocking or gory even when it could be. Instead it has a quiet creepiness. Even the sound seems muffled most of the time. Think of the number of scenes where you hear voices or noises coming through walls, on the other side of doors, from inside trunks, underwater, etc.
*. That sense of barriers to understanding and communication is complemented by the number of shots where characters are seen as separated from each other, typically by glass. I like how Oskar is introduced to us as a pale wraith, distorted in reflection against the night sky. This is an effect that is repeated later with Hakan in the window of his hospital room. Is that a foreshadowing of Oskar’s eventual fate?
*. The visuals are stark as well (except for those damn CGI cats). The urban landscape is weirdly vacant even during the day, and that classroom set has to be one of the most brutally institutional I’ve ever seen. But there’s a nice rhythm maintained between shots emphasizing strong tableau-like horizontals, and screen-stuffing close-ups.
*. A pair of wonderful performances from the two leads. Either that or Alfredson is just a genius at directing young people. All those close-ups are a real testing ground. And yet he’s so sure of their performances that for Eli’s smile at the end he can fill the screen only with the top of her face. She does all of the work with her eyes.
*. I originally thought Oskar a bit too restrained and dreamy, but on re-viewings I like what Kåre Hedebrant is doing. This is an original and authentic portrayal of a troubled kid, the sort of kid I would feel very suspicious of. I wonder if he’ll be joining Eli on the dark side, and I like being left to wonder.
*. Does the arrangement of the bodies around the pool at the end make sense? I do love the ending, but in practical terms I don’t see how it could have played out the way it apparently did, even assuming (what I think is ridiculous) that the head was thrown across the pool away from the decapitated body and the severed arm took a long, long time to fall into the water.
*. A great movie does the little things well. There’s a scene near the beginning here where Oskar’s mom asks if he doesn’t want to watch the rest of a television program with her. He says he doesn’t and leaves, and she is left alone saying (to herself) that she is going to watch it anyway. It’s a perfectly captured moment, of the kind that is often cut because it doesn’t contain any “necessary information,” but which adds so much to the film’s emotional texture.