Blame IKEA, with its Swedish meatballs and odd, but amusing-sounding names for bookcases that require a degree in civil engineering to put together, and the softest towels that melt away that frustration. All that is what got me interested in Sweden recently, mainly because Las Vegas does not have an IKEA, stuck in a wishlist that includes White Castle and a New York City-based rice pudding outfit called Rice and Riches, with more flavors of rice pudding than you ever thought possible. Not that I have any desire to go back to Burbank, California for that IKEA, or even California for anything. But now I have the opportunity to go beyond IKEA, to learn more about Sweden, its history, its culture, its people, and its landscape. I begin with Kiss Me, a Swedish drama from Wolfe Video, which presents part of a country I might like to visit, if not for all the white interior decoration, sometimes daringly paired with black, which makes me wonder about hotel rooms there. I prefer the grays that I see in some locations used for Kiss Me. At least there’s more going on in that color. But I could be wrong about those basic colors. I hope so.
Anyway, what we have here is a tense, sharp drama involving Mia (Ruth Vega Fernandez), who is engaged to Tim (Joakim Nätterqvist, who looks like a Swedish Neil Patrick Harris), the wedding coming in three months. At a family and friends gathering and celebration that includes Mia’s father, Lasse (Krister Henriksson), and his soon-to-be-wife, Elisabeth (Lena Endre), Mia meets Frida (Liv Mjönes, who sometimes looks like a Swedish cross between Claire Danes and Mena Suvari, and then a cross between Heather Graham and Mena Suvari), Elisabeth’s daughter, who may very well become Mia’s sister-in-law. But one kiss between them at the family cabin on a quiet island throws Mia’s assured sexuality into turmoil.
She can’t be attracted to Frida. She’s supposed to marry Tim. That’s the way it was and the way it should be. Or so Mia thinks, trying to figure it out, ignoring Frida for a time before Frida takes the initiative and climbs into Mia’s bed. Now what? What can Mia do? How does she feel? Who does she want to be? What is her true self? And what about Tim and the engagement?
When I had access to them, my obsession with the Swedish meatballs at IKEA could have been deemed unhealthy. But I’m reminded of something else to appreciate in my burgeoning interest in Sweden: They know how to do psychological drama very well. And it’s not only the formidable actors here, including the dark-haired, wide-eyed, intense Ruth Vega Fernandez, that make you think not only about what Mia’s going through in her search for her sexual identity, but about what the others in this drama might be going through. You watch all this build and build and wonder what the subsequent emotional explosion will be like, or if it will even be an explosion. Maybe it’ll just spray out a bit at a time like helium from a tank. In fact, when that time comes, when the revelations come, the reaction of one character is especially potent. It’s not overdramatic, as it can tend to be come awards season time here in the United States. It’s natural, it’s understandable, it’s what was going to happen anyway, but it’s interesting to note the reaction, and especially how we feel in the midst of it.
What Kiss Me sometimes misses is drawing a few of its characters more vividly. All we really know of Tim is that he and Mia seem to work together as architects, and that he, of course, loves Mia, but there’s nothing else in him to make us feel for him more than we do. He’s like a secondary thought at times. That probably has to be so to keep the focus squarely on Mia and Frida, but the end of the movie makes it seem necessary that he was written that way because again, it’s only about Mia and Frida and the reactions of others, not about the others.
However, on the flip side, the best scene of the movie comes from Lasse, when Elisabeth reveals to him what she knows about Mia and Frida, and Lasse tersely denies what Elisabeth is saying and then falls silent, just eating, while Elisabeth tries to get him to say something, to tell her what he’s feeling. Nothing. He just sits there, set in his ways, no matter that times have changed and are changing. It’s tension that doesn’t need music to punctuate it.
Speaking of no music, Kiss Me also does something that frankly feels revolutionary to this American: There’s no music during any of the sex scenes. Writer/director Alexandra Therese-Keining prefers the emotions to happen naturally, not to use music to tell you how you should feel during it. However you feel is up to you. I doubt that would fly here in the United States because sex scenes here are much, much shorter than they are in Kiss Me, and don’t usually feature the entire act, start to finish. Not in real time, of course, but just enough that you get the gist of their passion for each other. No music during a sex scene in an American film would never happen because the filmmakers involved need an audience to feel a certain way to get their point across. Otherwise, they’ve got nothing.
Wolfe Video has released a low-key DVD, replete with only the trailer, a music video, and trailers for Joe + Belle, Tomboy, The Wise Kids, Love Free or Die, The Guest House, and Leading Ladies. It feels right to not have much else, to give you space to figure out how you feel about what you’ve just seen. Some movies need extra features based on what it has offered in special effects or something else. This isn’t one of them.
Kiss Me is better than frustrating IKEA bookshelves in an introduction to Sweden, mainly because you don’t have to try to decipher instructions that seem like they we written to defeat you at every turn. It has the landscape (including some of Denmark), it has the people, and it has reasons to keep digging, keep exploring. That’s all I need. Not only to know more about the country in all its facets, but also for more Swedish films. My curiosity is piqued. Well played, Sweden.