Lisa Langseth is certainly unpredictable. Many of us didn’t really know what to make of the poster for her breakthrough film Pure (Till det som är vackert, 2010). The provocative title. The older man/conductor with his hand on the very young, very beautiful woman. Her pained expression into the camera. Would it be like a French film from the 80’s? Then we realised that all those clichés were the subject of the film. That the young woman’s journey from the squalid suburbs to the concert hall enslaves her in another way. And Alicia Vikander’s approach to playing the young woman was a far cry from a French film from the 80’s.
Vikander also plays the lead in the new film, this time as a woman who’s losing her foothold in life, more as a result of falling down the social ladder than climbing up it. Her inability to accept what has happened to her makes her incapable of knowing who she really is and how she is to cope with reality.
“Identity is a key part of modern life,” says Lisa Langseth. “Having your own identity and being clear about what it is. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re unsure of who you are, bad things will follow. People expect you to have a clear persona.”
How did you get the idea for Hotel?
Langseth laughs: “There was no way I wanted to make a film about beautiful women in fancy apartments having a bad time. Yuk! I myself was going through a personal crisis and wondering if I should probe back into my childhood or simply needed to change some ingrained behaviour. It was something which interested me: in the middle of a crisis, should you look back or forward?”
Erika (Alicia Vikander’s character) in the film, running away from her family, is that you?
“I’m all five of the characters. It was amazing to be able to write and offload all that shit onto those five. And shooting the film was a very positive experience. All the actors were so intelligent, working on the film as a whole and not just their individual characters. After a while they were so into their roles that we could have just kept going. We didn’t want to part from each other.”
Many of the characters say they want to take a break from being themselves, that they want to test what it’s like being someone else.
“There’s an enormous freedom in supercognitive thinking: that you can change yourself just by changing your behaviour. But we all have our own history which we can’t simply ignore. It’s a question of striking the right balance to find your way forward.”
Balancing things out seems to be a leading theme in Langseth’s life and work. She doesn’t make things easy for herself, especially given that she lives in a country where we always want to pigeonhole people and things alike. She freely took the step from playwright to theatre director to film director. She refuses to categorise films as either narrow or expansive. She’s obviously a feminist, but isn’t afraid to draw inspiration from such self-consciously male directors as Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. And whereas she has actively campaigned against the alpha males of the theatre, the first person to open her eyes to the possibilities of theatre was that well known Swedish writer and alpha male, Stig Larsson.
“My mother and I sat and watched his production of one of his own plays on television when I was twelve. It had a great influence on me. I was amazed that a grown person could make something like that up. I loved it. The fact that they could say things like that on television!”
“Art has given me everything. Nobody can get at me in art. But there have been enormous obstacles to overcome. God, I remember the first time I was directing at the Royal Dramatic Theatre. There were certain men who could do just what they wanted and say things that women just had to put up with… That was ten years ago. A lot has happened since then.”
Was it a big step to move from theatre to film? It’s not so common nowadays.
“Yes, it’s certainly not common here in Sweden. I’ve had a lot of contact with France since two of my plays have been performed there. There it’s quite natural to move between the stage and screen. In Sweden it seems almost that there are two different types of people.”
One thing people remark on is that you get more out of your actors than other directors. Does that stem from the theatre?
“Simon [Pramsten, the cinematographer for all of Langseth’s films] and I have talked a lot about that. The acting always comes first. I’d much rather see good acting in bad lighting than vice versa. That has always been our policy. The actors hold the key to the story. But in terms of form, Hotel is more selfconsciously worked than Pure. I’ve come further with costumes, colours and sound. I’m starting to understand the full range of possibilities that film offers.”
When she speaks of her new film it’s a kind of hymn of praise to the cooperation and mutual understanding it generated. In the light of her stories from the Royal Dramatic Theatre, this sets me thinking: do women feel obliged to create a good working environment? Are they allowed to insult and terrorise people, to use good old fashioned techniques to break actors down and get them to reveal sides of themselves they never knew they had?
Is it not something of a pity that you have to put aside all notions of the inconsiderate artist genius when women have taken over that mantle?
“Yes it is. There’s nothing wrong with the notion of genius. And it’s starting to happen now: women artists getting praised for their qualities. But when untalented men had the undeserved right to put down talented women, that was just complete shit.”
It’s a subject that Langseth is tired of. That was what her previous film was about. I want to steer our conversation away from men and talk more about the female artistic temperament, but I hold back. The answer comes a little later, when we talk about the phenomenal Mira Eklund, who gives a towering performance as a downtrodden woman with enormous inner strength in Hotel. Langseth talks of her problems in finding someone who could play that part openly and honestly without becoming a victim. But she doesn’t think that Mira Eklund is about to become the third name on the list of women actors whose career she has helped to launch (she worked in the theatre with Noomi Rapace and was single-handedly responsible for the rise and rise of Alicia Vikander’s career).
“Mira is first and foremost an artist and musician. I don’t think she’s really interested. We had to beg her on our knees to take the part. The fact that she’s a musician made her more natural. Traditionally schooled actors can sometimes get bogged down in thinking ’why am I feeling this?’ They can lose their spontaneity and presence. Mira has so much integrity. She’s an intact person, very special and very much in her own place.”
Lisa Langseth looks for that “own place” in everything she does. She doesn’t make statements. She investigates. She radiates integrity, presence and an ability to step outside herself and look at the big picture. She expects the same of the people she works with. There’s not much room for egotistical manipulators in her world.
Previously published in Swedish Film #2 2013