Show Me Love (1998)

600full-show-me-love-poster

Plot Summary: One Friday night in the Swedish town of Amal, Elin, an outgoing popular girl and Agnes, a lonely misfit, share a kiss which sparks a journey of discovery for them both.

Trigger/content warnings: This blog entry contains discussions of homophobia, bi erasure, death, suicide and ableism.

In this entry, I look at lesbian representation, queerness, class, disability and outsiderhood in the Swedish coming-of-age drama Show Me Love. (The content under the cut contains spoilers.)

Agnes Ahlberg (Rebecka Liljeberg), a sensitive and friendless sixteen-year-old misfit, has been living in the town of Amal for almost two years without having made a single real friend. She has, however, developed a desperate crush on her popular, sassy classmate, fourteen-year-old Elin Olsson (Alexandra Dahlstrom). Elin feels hopelessly stifled by life in Amal, with its limited opportunities for adolescent rebellion, and dreads the thought of putting down roots there.
Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg)
Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg)
Elin (Alexandra Dahlstrom)
Elin (Alexandra Dahlstrom)

Show Me Love is the lesbian film I wish I had seen in high school … and I saw a lot of lesbian films in high school. A common rite of passage among queer girls and women is devouring every vaguely lesbian film and TV show that they can get their hands on. Starved for images of ourselves onscreen, for any blueprint of how our future relationships will go, we take to the Internet (or the local Video Ezy, back in my day) and pore over titles and synopses. “This … is why lesbians still watch The L Word years after its finale; why so many young queers talk about the internet like it’s a favorite aunt” (Fonseca 2015). Among queer girls, the volume of “lesbian movies” you’ve seen becomes part badge of honour, part clarion call to others like you – if that girl in your Maths class or netball team has any idea who Clea DuVall is, she is both super cool and very potentially not entirely straight. It can almost feel exciting, like being in a secret club.

As you set out to discover all the secrets society seems to have kept from you thus far, you learn the media clichés fairly quickly. There’s usually a blonde and a brunette. If not a blonde and a brunette, they’ll have aesthetically contrasting hair colours (blonde and red, brunette and red, dyed and natural). If it’s an interracial couple, one is always white. The girls are rarely overweight, disabled or visibly butch, because we’re to understand that these things are necessarily unattractive and that nobody who looks like that is supposed to exist, let alone kiss or date anyone ever. One of the girls is good (middle-class, quiet, studious, virginal, all-American), and the other is kinda bad (poor, angry, manipulative, promiscuous and/or vaguely androgynous). Maybe the good girl reforms the bad girl, or the bad girl brings the good girl out of her shell, or the bad girl leads the good girl off on a dangerous path. The point is, they’re opposites.

The bad girl/good girl dynamic is very common to lesbian coming of age films. We see it in The Incredibly True Adventure of 2 Girls in Love, Heavenly Creatures, D.E.B.S. and But I’m a Cheerleader, as well as many other films. In an increasingly liberalised society, this could be a way of underscoring the forbidden nature of lesbianism. This could also be a way of figuring sexual difference between two female characters, especially in a cultural climate which does not allow for butch girls to be portrayed onscreen.

Bad Girl and Good Girl have – well, not so much a Meet Cute as a Meet Strange. They exchange loaded, heated looks for about twenty minutes of the runtime, then they kiss out of friggin’ nowhere, then there are some scenes of them being too close for people’s liking (dancing together, holding hands), then they have artfully lit sex, then a boy comes between them and one of the girls gets all possessive of the other. At this point, nobody has so much as said, “So, we like each other, maybe we should talk about that?” or “Would you like to be my girlfriend?” Instead, they’re more likely to say things like, “If you leave me, I’ll kill you and then I’ll kill myself” (actual quote from My Summer of Love). Actual dates? Forget it, you’re dreaming. Lesbians don’t go on dates.

(I was sixteen before I saw a film where two lesbians actually went out on a pre-arranged date. This floored me – D.E.B.S. meant to actually tell me that lesbians could, like, meet at a restaurant and eat food and drink wine like normal people? I was seventeen before I got to go to the cinema and see a film where two women ran to each other in the street and kissed while a camera span around them and happy music played. The film was Imagine Me and You, which I saw for my seventeenth birthday, with another queer friend. The usher leered at us as we left the theatre. Shortly afterwards, I attempted to order the DVD of Lost and Delirious from a shop in town, and got – you guessed it – leered at again by the clerk.)

The girls in lesbian movies rarely talk about feeling queer. They don’t allude to having been attracted to girls before. This is always the first time, at least for the protagonist (especially if she’s the good girl). Often, one of the girls has to have deeply unsatisfying sex with a boy in order to check that they’re interested in women, because there’s no such thing as a sexually inexperienced person who is already sure of their sexuality. The idea that, for some people, this may be somewhat counterintuitive – like eating sushi to check whether or not you like pasta – is never so much as mentioned. Then, if it’s a sad movie, one or both of the girls will die, kill themselves, kill someone else and/or go crazy, and the credits roll.

As a queer teenage girl, you learn that this is the way relationships go. There is a bad girl and a good girl, and both should refrain from saying what they feel. They should do what they don’t want so that it will be okay for them to eventually do what they actually want. You learn that it is better, more poetic, more realistic for everything to be subtext. No-one should ever define or label their sexuality, and the characters who are like you will invariably get dumped by their girlfriends, always for a boy (who is either bland or despicable).

That all queer relationships are rocky and miserable and end badly is, frankly, a pretty bizarre thing to con a huge chunk of the adolescent population into believing. Nobody demands that films about straight teenagers end realistically, with poor communication and messy breakups. If Twilight had ended with Bella and Edward awkwardly breaking up after they both cheated on each other, I imagine heterosexual teenage girls would have torched cinemas worldwide in furious protest – as well they should.

Yet when it comes to female queerness, filmmakers have historically seemed deeply invested in realism, but only a particular kind of realism. My life in Sydney, with queer flatmates, friends, colleagues and a long-term partner, would probably be deemed wildly unrealistic in the eyes of filmmakers who create representations of queer lives primarily aimed at heterosexual people.

Now, obviously not all films about queer women feature these tropes, but enough of them do that it has a significant impact on the way people think about queer women. While Show Me Love features a good many of these clichés, it also subverts enough of them to make it exceedingly interesting – as well as being a sweet, well-written film.

The first act of the film is concentrated around a Friday night in Amal. Agnes’ mother is throwing her a sixteenth birthday party, despite the fact that Agnes has no friends to invite. The party is agonizing: Agnes’ mother prepares roast beef even though Agnes is a vegetarian, and the only person to show up is Viktoria (Josefin Nyberg), Agnes’ “pretend friend” who listens to the Backstreet Boys and has a room crammed with teddy bears. The two of them have nothing in common, but are pushed together by the fact that no-one else will hang out with them, since Viktoria uses a wheelchair and Agnes is (correctly) rumoured to be gay.

Viktoria (Josefin Nyberg)
Viktoria (Josefin Nyberg)

Embarrassed and angry, Agnes lashes out at Viktoria with ableist slurs and runs up to her room in tears. Viktoria goes home, humiliated. However, things seem to be looking up when Elin and her sister Jessica (Erica Carlson) crash the party. Inside Agnes’ room, Elin spies part of Agnes’ diary, in which Agnes discusses her crush on Elin. She nudges Jessica to dare her to kiss Agnes. She springs a kiss on Agnes (Agnes’ first ever kiss, as it happens) and the sisters run out, leaving Agnes feeling awful.

Feeling guilty for humiliating Agnes, Elin goes back to apologise – inadvertently stopping Agnes from cutting her wrists. Elin asks Agnes to come with her to another party, and on the way, they chat about future careers and their own various weirdnesses. Curious, Elin asks Agnes, “Have you been with lots of girls?

Unhappily, Agnes admits, “No, I haven’t been with lots of girls, if you must know. When you kissed me … it was the first time. The first and last time.”

What Elin says next absolutely melts my heart. With no guile at all, she tells Agnes, “But that’s completely wrong! It’s just ’cause you live in fucking Amal. If you lived in Stockholm, for example, then you’d have loads of girls.” Agnes positively glows at these words, which is unsurprising, considering that if a cute girl had said that to me in 2005, I probably would have swooned. One thing leads to another, Agnes and Elin try to hitchhike to Stockholm so Agnes can date lots of girls and Elin can have the adolescent rebellion she’s always dreamed of  – and they share a real, utterly unglamorous, incredibly sweet kiss in the back of a car, to Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is.

Cuties <3
Cuties ❤

Confronted with her burgeoning feelings for Agnes, Elin tries to deny them even to herself, comes out to her mum before taking it back a second later, avoids Agnes and dates hapless Johan (Mathias Rust) … but love wins out in the end.

The film opens with the sound of typing, then cuts to Agnes, writing a secret list in her diary, which she keeps on her computer:

My Secret List:
1)    I don’t want to have a party.
2)    Elin will see me.

[Cut back to Agnes’ face for a beat, then back to the screen as she finishes off her list.]

3)    That Elin will fall in love with me.
I LOVE ELIN!!!!!!

There is always a moment in each of my favourite films where I can tell this is a film I’m going to love. It sounds so simple, but the image of a teenage girl writing a private diary on a computer about the girl she has a crush on was that moment for me in Show Me Love. The fact that, at the film’s opening, Agnes is well aware that she has a crush on Elin and dreams of Elin returning her feelings, just made me like the film straight away. While many queer kids don’t have the self-awareness or language to define their sexuality until their mid-teens, it is rather nice to have a queer teenage girl film protagonist who just knows. After all, the straight protagonist of Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging didn’t have to have a moment where she went, “Oh my Gawd, I think I may like … boys?!?!?!?” She opened the film already sure of her sexuality, and the audience accepted it because audiences expect heterosexual teenage girls to have that sort of self-knowledge. Why shouldn’t we have more films where queer teenage girls are already aware of their sexuality?

You can tell that Agnes is deep because she has posters of Casablanca and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet in her bedroom. (Actually, Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be everywhere in this movie, showing up in Agnes, Jessica/Elin and Viktoria’s school lockers and bedrooms. Even as someone who was a bit too young and a bit too gay to be obsessed with Leo back in the late 1990s, I can attest that this is in no way an exaggeration.) According to Stenport, Agnes’ bedroom contains “numerous markers that indicate her as an intellectual and an outsider,” including posters of Morrissey, classical and alternative CDs and reproductions of modern art (2012, 63). “Agnes’ identity as a lesbian is coupled with her intellectual interests. She is silent, serious and interested in the interiority of human beings – she wants to become either a psychologist or an author. We are thus meant to take her sexual orientation seriously – for her, same-sex desire is not a matter of play-acting” (2012, 63).

The audience’s first glimpse of Elin is of her brawling with her older sister because Jessica finished the last of the chocolate milk. I enjoy the fact that Agnes’ crush is an impulsive and impetuous teenager, rather than an Amanda Beckett type.


I don’t believe Amanda Beckett has ever tackled someone to the floor over chocolate milk…

However, Stenport brings up the fact that in Sweden, lesbian identity is tied to a particular display of intellect and a middle to upper-middle class background. For Swedish critics, Elin’s identity as “a working-class young woman with little intellectual or cultural sophistication” threw the sincerity of her same-sex attraction into doubt (Stenport, 2012 63). This is an example of bisexual erasure, wherein people presume “that bisexuality doesn’t – and cannot – exist” (Eisner, 2013, 67). In the eyes of the critics Stenport discusses, Elin is not “serious” or middle-class enough to know her own mind, so she must be a confused or easily led heterosexual girl. In light of these assumptions, that Elin concludes the film happily in a relationship with Agnes feels all the sweeter. Moreover, as she grows more confident in asserting herself, Elin stands up to her overbearing sister and breaks up with her drippy boyfriend for putting up with his repulsive best friend’s sexism.

Elin is never explicitly said to be bisexual, but is shown to have had interests in boys prior to becoming attracted to Agnes. The refusal to name bisexuality in lesbian coming-of-age films means that for a girl character, a choice between a boy and girl love interest is often implicitly suggested to be a choice between lesbianism and heterosexuality, rather than a choice between romantic relationships with two individuals. Whichever one she chooses is thus implied to have resolved her identity along monosexual lines. San Filippo comments that this “willingness to open (and keep open) bisexual space is promising, its progressive potential is problematized by the concurrent endorsement of a fateful and monogamy-directed “true love”” (San Filippo, 2007, 68).

Even if her bisexuality is not named, one of my favourite aspects of Elin’s storyline in Show Me Love is that Elin comes to a greater understanding of her own capacity to act on her desires, in a way that Hot Crushworthy Girls are not often allowed to do in mainstream teen film. For example, in different scenes, both Agnes and Johan stare lingeringly at (and are implied to masturbate to) Elin’s class picture.

Fucking Amal_113 Fucking Amal_116

After spending much of the film struggling with her feelings for Agnes, Elin opens the school yearbook to Agnes’ picture and stares lingeringly at it. Instead of merely accepting others’ sexual desire for her, Elin acknowledges her own desires.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 11.36.05 am Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 11.36.13 am

In terms of the film’s representation of disability, given the usual tendency to represent teenage outcasts as much less shallow and judgemental than popular kids, Agnes and Viktoria using ableism and homophobia to hurt each other is noteworthy. After Agnes and Elin share their first real kiss, Agnes is feeling on top of the world, so she goes to apologise to Viktoria for her behaviour. Viktoria doesn’t accept her apology: “It’ll be so nice to be rid of you. I won’t need to worry that you’ll paw me and be nauseating. The whole school will find out what you are. Good luck with Elin.”

Regarding Agnes’ dislike of Viktoria, Stenport argues

“Viktoria is paralyzed from the waist down; the paralysis in the lower part of her body suggests asexuality. This is perhaps also what increases Agnes’ aggression. She does not want to be associated with asexuality. She wants her sexuality to be taken seriously and for it not to be treated as a form of paralysis” (2012, 65).

I disagree with Stenport here. I believe that Agnes chiefly balks at hanging out with Viktoria because she finds Viktoria’s interests in stuffed animals and pop music twee and embarrassing. The relation of Viktoria’s disabled body to Agnes’ lesbianism adds another dimension to this. In Anita and Me, Meena and Sally used each other’s race and weight to score points and distract attention from the ways they felt they were lacking. In Show Me Love, we see that two girls with marginalised identities are not necessarily going to be any less apt to take their frustrations out on each other than the able-bodied, heterosexual kids. Agnes and Viktoria can each tell that associating with each other will drag them down socially, whereas tearing each other down will give them a limited amount of social capital. When Agnes is outed, Viktoria tries to exploit this by claiming that Agnes made a pass at her, asserting her own heterosexuality by branding Agnes as unnatural (Brown, 2003, 141). Later, when Agnes’ lesbianism seems to give her an in with a group of boys, Viktoria tries to imply that she, too, is attracted to girls.

Show Me Love is a film I would recommend all teenagers watch, as it portrays small-town life and the dreams and desires of small-town teenagers with a wonderful sensitivity. While it plays some lesbian movie cliches straight, it subverts others in genuinely delightful ways; disabled and queer teenagers aren’t required to be saints, the hot unattainable girl can come to terms with her own desires for a shy dork, and while a girl’s first kiss can be awful, her second can be everything she ever dreamed of.

CUTIES <3 <3 <3
D’awwwww…

Trailer:


References:

  • Brown, Lyn Mikel. 2003. Girlfighting: Betrayal and Rejection Among Girls. New York: New York University Press.
  • Eisner, Shiri, 2013. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. Berkeley, California: Seal Press.
  • Fonseca, Sarah. 2015. Remembering Lesley Gore, A Lesbian Icon. http://www.buzzfeed.com/sarahfonseca/remembering-lesley-gore-a-lesbian-icon#.roogeEpMJG
  • San Filippo, Maria. 2007. Having it Both Ways: Bisexualities/bi-textualities and Contemporary Crossover Cinema. Ph.D. thesis, University of California.
  • Stenport, Anna Westerståhl. 2012. Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Sundholm, John, Isak Thorsen, Lars Gustaf Andersson, Olof Hedling, Gunnar Iversen, Birgir Thor Møller. 2012. Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Cinema. Lanham, Maryland:Scarecrow Press.
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