A startling, subtly Sapphic psychodrama based around the dynamics of a fiercely competitive female sport.
It’s tempting to compare this, a tense, startling, subtly Sapphic psychodrama based around the dynamics of a fiercely competitive female sport, with 2010’s Black Swan. The centrepiece here, rather than ballet, is equestrian vaulting, which involves performing complex acrobatic feats on horseback. As with ballet, there’s a tension between the outward grace of the performance and the physical struggle it conceals.
It’s this struggle for composure that defines the relationship between new girl Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) and the more experienced Cassandra (Linda Molin). From the start, both feel threatened, unsettled, attracted to the other, but there’s little physical or verbal display on either side. Far from a straightforward will they/won’t they dynamic, theirs is part-love story, part-power struggle, part-psychological warfare.
Meanwhile, away from the vaulting ring, Emma’s younger sister Sara (Isabella Lindquist) begins to confront her own sexuality after an incident at the local swimming pool changes her perspective. It’s this storyline that comes closest to earning the taboo-breaking label with which the film’s been saddled, but it also feels deliberately poised to unnerve, lacking the compulsive, airless quality of Emma and Cassandra’s developing attachment.
She Monkeys marks a debut for just about everyone involved. Director Lisa Aschan’s most notable experience prior was as assistant director on two episodes of The Killing, while both Paradeiser and Molin are entirely new to the screen.
The clarity and subtlety of both performances impresses, while Aschan and co-scripter Josefine Adolfsson skilfully establish an emerging undercurrent of danger, and even violence, in the girls’ relationship. What’s genuinely taboo breaking here is the idea of femininity as a weapon, emerging most notably in one disquieting scene between Emma, Cassandra and an unwary male love interest.
The comparison to Black Swan is useful only as counterpoint – every dial that Aronofsky cranked right up to 11, Aschan turns all the way down, creating an atmosphere of unbearable, quiet tension.
Strong buzz, but a cast and crew this untested could go either way.
Aschan balances understated hues with emotional violence to mesmerising effect.
A deftly measured, deeply unsettling portrait of a power struggle.