A big dick fills the screen at the onset of Behind Blue Skies, with a young pretty blond in Lewinski mode, making sure the film won't be distributed in the U.S. anytime soon. It's instant overkill, a very cheap and pointless ploy, especially for a film that isn't about the nature of sex and has no further nudity throughout. It catches you off guard, but it's the only rise in the film, a story that could have used an erection anywhere else.
Bill Skarsgård plays Martin, the boy with the large penis that (excuse me while I clear my throat) becomes a man by learning the drug trade from his girlfriend's dad while working for him at a summer resort. Martin's step into manhood is solidified in a final confrontation with his own father, a moment we've seen coming for at least 95 minutes in a film that's 85 minutes too long already.
Martin's dad is an alcoholic. It's kept as a family secret. He might start with wine at the dinner table but a typical night sends him on a hunt for the vodka bottles stashed away around the house. He's a blackout drinker, the kind that stumbles and swears and tries to throw parties but will be picked up and dropped into bed when he's done. Ugly, angry, violent and unpredictable, he scares Martin and his mom every night, and when they've all awakened the next morning he can't remember what he did. Martin and his mom remember everything, every recurring day, and have no real option but to repress it.
In a recent filmcomment interview with director Mike Leigh regarding his latest, Another Year, Leigh points out the alcoholism that crops up in a few of his films, and notes that when alcoholism is portrayed in film it isn't about the alcohol, but it's more about the pain. He says, "We know that people are driven to alcohol because of the pain, and it's the pain we're talking about."
Had Behind Beautiful Skies stayed with the story of Martin and the family pain in the aftermath of his father's nightly sprees, it might have been an OK film. The scenes between Martin, his mom and his dad are captured with a grave reality. But time isn't spent there, and some very good scenes are lost to the rest of the film. I didn't time it, but I'd be surprised if even twenty minutes are devoted to Martin's home life. It's treated like bookends, setting up family life in the opening chapters so we can come back and confront things in the end. Presenting the story like this with no depth treats it as a movie cliche, even without the bumbling scenes of drug dealing taking place in the film's middle portion. And the middle portion certainly doesn't help the film either, as it stumbles like Martin's drunk dad: out of control, all over the place, it's a disaster and a mess.
The film wants you to look at it like it's all about different classes in Swedish culture. While Martin and his parents are a working class kind of people, the summer resort where he's headed is intended for the rich. A friend's wealthy parents invited Martin there for the summer, and when he arrives his friend takes off with some other snotty rich kids, and Martin takes a job as a bus boy.
He'll get a promotion to waiter, get fired for stealing beer (he's the fall guy), he'll find a girl he really likes, get re-hired on the side by her dad (same employer that fired him, the drug dealer), he'll begin to make drops for the man, learn to siphon the restaurant's cash, and learn how to negotiate between the police and the dealers in staying out of a coming raid -- all of this before he gets to go back home to punch out daddy. The summer scenes are as unbelievable as the coming roundhouse punch, and I can't stress enough how predictable that knockout punch is.
Writer/Director Hannes Holm must be somewhat young to think that being taken under the wing of a drug dealer is going to make you a better person in the end. There are quite a few paths to manhood, and this simply isn't one of them. I heard a few ladies chatting as we walked out of the theater, saying, "Oh, but he was such a nice boy." I rolled my eyes at the thought. Maybe his manners were nice -- as Swedes typically are -- but this kid's actions prove otherwise and should have landed him behind bars. No one forces Martin to go into a life of crime. No one forces him to continue with the drops when he's fully realized what's going on. He takes the job to stay at the resort with the hopes of meeting up again with the girl.
So this is a film about drug runners in Sweden (uh-huh), and a love story between the drug dealer's well adjusted daughter (uh-huh) and Martin, who is supposed to be likable even though he intentionally chooses a life of crime and comes from an alcoholic home (uh-huh), all of which is boring (oh, uh-HUH!), and bookended by a story that could have been an OK twenty minute short film.
I'm sure Martin inwardly blames dad for many of his problems, but there's no guilt or consequences for any of the wrong Martin has actually done. Yeah, he's a nice kid. Yes, he has nice Swedish manners. But this is a shell of a character, which makes him unsympathetic to this viewer as he kind of bounces from one place to the next like a pinball in a pinball machine, regardless of the morality or lack thereof in any new situation where he finds himself. And just because he predictably lands a blow on daddy's head near the end of the story, how does that make him a man?
I'd like to back up, though, and concentrate on Martin's erect penis in the opening scene. I'm trying to figure out why it bugs me the way it does. I'm old enough to have seen anything any other guy my age has seen. It's not the image itself that I find disgusting here. It's its empty use, a cheap tactic that seems thrown in simply to throw off. Were the film a deeper probing even about sex in and of itself, I might have not been as bugged as I was. But this is PG-13 material that ends up in NC-17 territory, all because of less than ten or fifteen seconds of film. Strange choice.
Holm might want to see some of his countryman Lukas Moodysson's films in order to understand when and where to use this explicit stuff. Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever, the story of a sixteen year-old Estonian seeking a new life in Sweden that ends in sex slavery, is a credible and complex topic which might justify a human body being captured like this on film. But even Moodysson's film with a topic centered on sex is more tastefully done. And even when Moodysson is at his ugliest, his most debased, a viewer can still grasp why he's descended into the trash. What is A Hole in My Heart more than a tormenting experience which tries to create another (cliched) "moral of the story"? We can at least understand what Moodysson is intending, due to the context and the nature of the topic. We might not like it, but we get it.
Or maybe I'm just a prude. That could very well be. But I don't think that is the case. Not here.
When Carlos Reygadas makes a film like Battle in Heaven which I rave about regardless of its opening shocker of straight fellatio, there must be a contextual difference as to why I would react so positively to that film and so negatively to Holm's initial perfunctory sex scene, which set a negative tone in my mind for the rest of the film regardless of how dull it really is. Reygadas uses material like this for an actual purpose, dealing with the guilt and consequences of wrong actions, even the ramifications of sex when it is used in as an escape from the body rather than a connection with the soul of another.
There needs to be a point to sexual activity in mainstream film, and in my mind the opening scene in Behind Blue Skies crosses the line into pornography as much as anything in Winterbottom's 9 Songs. The fact that any of these scenes are artistically rendered for whatever purpose doesn't change that it is what it is. I hate to use this description, sounding like the famous US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when describing The Lovers, but, "I know what it is when I see it."
There's muddled, wrong thinking involved in the creation of this story that is more worthy of delving into than the brief opening scene of a functioning penis, but the film as a whole is so long-winded, falling into the "been there, done that" category, that I don't really care to put more thought into it.