Multilingual, impulsive, sprawling, Mammoth does little to dispel the view that Lukas Moodysson is a maker of purposely ‘difficult’ films.
‘Mammoth’ means ‘mother’ in Tagalog, a native tongue of the Philippines, where one fibre of Lukas Moodysson’s multifaceted film is intricately thread. It’s also a superficial reference to a $3,000 fountain pen presented to the film’s chief male protagonist Leo (Gael García Bernal) that’s finished with ivory cut from the fossil of some long-extinct Siberian beast. And it’s an allusion to a line from one of Moodysson’s own poems: ‘Our Savior buried like a Mammoth’.
Multilingual, impulsive, sprawling, Mammoth does little to dispel the view that Moodysson is a maker of purposely ‘difficult’ films. Here, however, the Swedish writer-director marries tangible real-life drama with jarring narrative incidents – death, infidelity, child rape – in a way that is both mature and sincere and never unfaithful to his carefully honed nihilistic style.
This could so easily have been cut from the Babel or Crash cloth, but Moodysson knows better than to bully his audience with overwrought sentiment and sugary musical cues. In Mammoth, the characters are more human, the narrative less hollow and the moral nuances less emphatically rubber-stamped onto the audience’s soul.
The plot hinges on an ill-fated juncture in the lives of a cosmopolitan New York couple. Leo, a videogame nut-cum-dotcom entrepreneur, is flown to Thailand to pen a lucrative business deal, leaving wife Ellen (Michelle Williams), a surgeon, to look after their whip smart young daughter Jackie (Sophie Nyweide). At hand to help is Filipino nanny Gloria (Marife Necesito), who’s taken up ex-pat status to provide a better life for her three boys back home.
What plays out is a sombre ballet of sacrifice and suffering as Leo feasts on forbidden fruit, Ellen witnesses her maternal bond fade, and Gloria questions whether the course she has chosen is truly best for her family. While these latter fixes are circumstantially justified, Leo’s behaviour is shamefully uncharacteristic.
His dramatic shift in principles after just a few days away from home is a bolt from the blue that shatters the authenticity of our wedded pair’s relationship. But does Moodysson actually want us to care, or does he simply relish leading his characters (and audience) through hell?
Much like 2002’s Lilya 4-Ever, Mammoth is a declaration of Moodysson’s contempt towards the affluent and the immoral. The patent cultural disparities that flavour each narrative arc are a thinly veiled stab at capitalist-driven globalisation, embodied by the juxtaposition of Leo and Ellen’s opulent SoHo penthouse against the bleak paradises of Thailand and the Philippines.
This is Moodysson’s first English-language film, and for it he has crossed oceans and explored new worlds to put Western ills to the sword. Yet while restoring Leo and Ellen’s equilibrium in the final act smacks of generic conformity, the reality is that Moodysson is simply telling it like it is. True to life, while the privileged comfortably slip back into routine, the vulnerable must lick their wounds and the poor are left to count the cost.
Controversial and unconventional Swedish director meets heavyweight indie stars.
Very little. Mammoth is a masterclass in feel-bad cinema.
Moodysson is a rare breed.