BFI London Film Festival 2011: ‘She Monkeys’


Swedish director Lisa Aschan’s debut feature She Monkeys (2011) is a hormonally-charged coming-of-age drama, depicting the conflict between two teenage girls, and stars Mathilda Paradeiser, Linda Molin and Isabella Lindquist. On the cusp of maturity, 15-year-old Emma (Paradeiser) lives with her younger sister, Sara (Lindquist), and their father, Ivan (Sergej Merkusjev). She’s about to embark on a series of encounters that will ultimately mould her into the sort of woman she’ll become. She Monkeys opens with this staunch, empowered adolescent training her incredibly obedient Border Collie using a clicker.

Emma meets Cassandra (Molin), a confident, beautiful and incredibly nubile girl whilst trying out for the local equestrian gymnastic team. The two quickly bond due to their shared determination and hard working approach to a sport which demands the utmost focus in order to be successful. Cassandra offers to help train Emma so she can catch up to the level of the rest of the girls, however Cassandra kindness comes with the condition that she has full control over her pupil, with Emma reluctantly prepared to accept Cassandra’s manipulation in exchange for her valuable teachings.

Their friendship soon leads to a series of intimate rendezvous which seems destined to boil over into a fully fledged romance, with each girl unable to avoid the raging hormones which pulls them closer together. However, their mutual, deep seated need to be in control soon causes a noticeable friction within their blossoming relationship, especially when they become rival competitors for a coveted place in the final squad.

Recalling the poignancy of Céline Sciamma’s Water Lillies (2007), She Monkeys is an emotively complex and deeply intriguing film about the empowerment of women, written by a woman and starring two strong female leads, yet it no way feels like an outspoken piece of feminist propaganda. Capturing the fraught feelings which accompany puberty, She Monkeys tells not just the tale of Emma’s burgeoning womanhood but also of her younger sister’s equally confusing journey into adolescence. These seemingly separate narratives complement each other with Emma’s intense and hardened approach softened by Sara’s innocent obsessions, adding a much needed injection of humour into an otherwise tense drama.

Aschan’s film possesses an abundance of style which, whilst at times distracting from the powerful performances on screen, makes it apparent that she’s a director with that rare ability to capture the raw beauty of real life. Her use of sound is perhaps the most noticeable asset on show, creating a tense yet oddly cold atmosphere, surrounding the events which unfold with a prevailing sense of danger. She Monkeys is a remarkable debut film from a promising young director that is both a deeply uncomfortable exploration of sexuality and an undeniably astonishing and profoundly beautiful experience.

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Patrick Gamble