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With: Rolf Lassgard, Helena Bergstrom, Johan Widerberg
Written by: Colin Nutley, Johanna Hald and David Neal, based on the short story by H.E. Bates
Directed by: Colin Nutley
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Swedish with English subtitles
Running Time: 118
Date: 12/25/1998

Under the Sun (1998)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Sun' Bleached

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sometimes I feel as if the Academy considers foreign films harsh medicine that needs lots of sugar and honey to go down. Where at one time had brave Oscar winners such as Nights of Cabiria, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Day for Night, lately the winners and nominees alike have been chirpy and sweet with lots of weepy music and large, sweeping plots that even a tree stump could follow.

For some reason, one of 1999's five nominees, the Swedish Under the Sun, has now seen the light of day. (The other nominees were East-West, Himalaya and Solomon and Gaenor and the winner was All About My Mother.) It's the worst example of this syrupy form of filmmaking.

After Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times panned the film, Roger Ebert defended it, claiming that Mitchell was far too cool and cynical to review such a film. I agree with Mitchell, and I'm not so cynical that I was unable to enjoy the likes of Serendipity and the upcoming Am´┐Żlie. If there was a subtle, truthful way to tell the sappy story of Under the Sun, the director Colin Nutley was unable to find it.

The story centers on three characters. A shy, middle-aged, illiterate farmer named Olaf (Rolf Lassgard) places an ad for a "young lady" housekeeper, obviously hoping for some romance. The gorgeous Ellen (Helena Bergstrom) answers, and Olaf's younger male friend Erik (Johan Widerberg) disapproves, mostly out of jealousy.

That's about it. Nutley manages to drag this scenario out to a solid two hours, playing out every obvious twist the old dusty rulebook had to offer. To drive home his points, Nutley employs an obtrusive, bittersweet swirling woodwind score and it pokes at us constantly from the soundtrack like a Chinese water torture. In addition, he feels the need to cut away to shots of birds flying every fifteen minutes, as if to remind us of the "smallness" of his story.

To illustrate that he's nervous around the lovely Ellen, the actor Lassgard doesn't simply act nervous. He loudly and constantly breathes, making snarking noises and grunting every few seconds. Anyone else would have bolted out of there, but for some reason Ellen stays.

However, I'm only human. I was as easily bowled over by Ellen's ice-blue, almond-shaped eyes -- as well as her many other attributes -- as a beer can in a hurricane. The actress Helena Bergstrom has appeared in another Nutley film House of Angels (1992) as well as the recent rock 'n' roll comedy Still Crazy (2000). She reminded me of Deborah Kara Under, coolly intelligent but extravagantly beautiful. She's a real catch, and we root for the poor, virginal farmer to win her.

Yes, the poor guy has never had sex in his life, so it's up to Ellen to teach him. These scenes capture just a little of the awkwardness this plot twist promises, but mostly Nutley runs over it in a montage of sweaty pounding, carefully not showing any body parts and turning up his obnoxious score to full volume.

Cute girl or no cute girl, I have little use for movies like this. The sugarcoating spoils viewers and ultimately makes it harder for them to digest truly great foreign language films that don't pull their punches, Edward Yang's Yi Yi and Jacques Rivette's Va Savoir being recent examples.

(This review originally appeared in The San Francisco Examiner.)

DVD Details: New Yorker's new DVD is fairly baisc, with just a trailer and scene selections.

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