After producing a string of super low budget features in his native Sweden, Mammoth (2010) is the first multi-national picture by acclaimed writer-director Lukas Moodysson, and “multi-national” really is the adjective of choice.
Mammoth is structured around the New York-based Vidales family: the father, Leo (Gael Garcia Bernal), an internet game designer; the mother, Ellen (Michelle Williams), a doctor; their daughter, Jackie (Sophie Nyweide); and her nanny, Gloria (Marife Necesito). While Ellen confronts daily examples of unfathomable cruelty at her hospital, Leo is on a business trip to Bangkok, where he tries to occupy himself during his days off. Jackie and Gloria continue to grow closer in the absence of the two parents, and as Ellen worries about her worth as a mother, we are also given access to the lives of Gloria’s own children back in the Philippines.
Bernal himself appeared in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006), and his casting in Mammoth evokes a number of comparisons between the two films, although the similarities appear to be mostly superficial. The parallel plot strands of Babel are rejected by Moodysson, and his film avoids narrative complexity in favour of carefully constructed ambience and atmosphere. The day to day non-events of the characters’ lives are inter cut without any narrative progression, and a unique, and the resulting evocative tone is undoubtedly the film’s greatest success, creating a dreamlike sensation, that occasionally drifts into nightmarish territory.
My only prior exposure to Moodysson’s work had been from watching his 2004 film A Hole In My Heart, a stomach churning, damning critique of the pornography industry and perhaps the most traumatic cinematic experience of my life thus far. Mammoth does not tear so deeply, nor does it attempt to do so; a much gentler movie than the aforementioned A Hole In My Heart, Moodysson’s latest film shows a group of people withstanding the terrors of modern life, rather than being corrupted by them. Moodysson’s targets for criticism are much more varied, and more pervasively ingrained in society: the sex trade, poverty, globalisation, and consumerism all fall under the director’s scrutinising lens.
For Mammoth, Moodysson has abandoned his previous radical, experimental edge in favour of a more polished style, and the film’s beautiful cinematography is a pleasure to watch, even when the characters themselves are doing little to hold the attention (though I do not wish to detract too heavily from the performances of the central four of Bernal, Williams, Nyweide and Necesito, all of whom do well).
On the one hand, one can see fairly clearly why Mammoth has garnered little or no award interest for its already acclaimed director, a film neither wilfully difficult nor easily accessible, conjuring an illusion of vapidness that may be rather too convincing for some audiences. However, for all its weaknesses, when things really do go wrong for its protagonists, Mammoth still packs a punch.