Mammoth, directed by Lukas Moodysson

Mammoth, directed by Lukas Moodysson

Another potentially interesting film tackling the human downsides of globalisation falls victim to superficial preaching

Love’s Labour’s Glossed. Film review – Tom Jennings
Acclaim for early work – small-town Swedish dramas Show Me Love (1998) and Together (2000) – included Ingmar Bergman dubbing Lukas Moodysson a ‘young master’. Perhaps over-emboldened, his subsequent trajectory spiralled rapidly downward. Lilya-4-Ever’s (2002) denunciation of sex-trafficking culminated in a Russian teenage suicide after her erstwhile boyfriend’s procurement yielded assembly-line degradation in Stockholm, before A Hole In My Heart’s (2004) frenzied, fractured trashing of DIY porn’s ugly distortions of sexual expression similarly rammed home late capitalist culture’s dehumanisation. Finally, surreal psychodrama Container (2006) not only deconstructed Moodysson’s own grandiosity, but decisively self-destructed residual audience sympathy and interest. Now, a surprisingly mainstream English-language Mammoth has international A-list actors spicing the original melodramatic thematics with his moral-political pot-pourri of Christian socialist pro-feminism (the Swedish title ‘Mamut’ being a diminutive for ‘mother’ in various languages).
High-flying computer games designer Leo and paediatric surgeon Ellen’s daughter Jackie, aged 7, is looked after in their New York yuppie penthouse by Philippino nanny Gloria. Her own young sons back home become increasingly distressed at her absence, whereas her employers also regretfully neglect parental duties – travelling to Asia sealing corporate deals, and through traumatic overwork tending a child victim of urban social breakdown. All-round unsatisfactory family relations then inexorably escalate. Despite hipster decency shunning business amorality, Leo consorts with Thai prostitute Cookie, herself separated from her infant; whereas Ellen’s jealous hostility at Jackie and Gloria’s growing closeness accentuates the latter’s homesickness, while her eldest’s acting out exposes him to American paedophiles. The story climaxes with Ellen’s patient dying, Gloria going home and, after giving Cookie expensive gifts she can’t sell, Leo happily reuniting his cosy unit – before planning the search for a new nanny.
The film’s skilful cinematography and performances effectively convey the “self-defeating parental sacrifice” (as Moodysson puts it) resulting from neoliberalism’s global disaster – where, counterpointing human distress, even blindingly obvious ironies and metaphors convince (like the basketball ‘made in the Philippines’ Gloria sends home for her son’s birthday, or a fountain pen inlaid with fossilised ivory embodying the zenith of consumerist value). Nevertheless, mechanical plot contrivances strain credulity in balancing tragedies of disconnection among rich and poor, and excesses of trite sentimentality are too conveniently manipulative. Pretension and condescension replace understanding and feeling, as trendy fascinations with globalisation exoticise its victims – with local lower classes driven further beyond the pale, increasingly unsuitable both for bourgeois exploitation and its dumping of social costs. Correspondingly, the film idealises the Western middle-class nuclear family, whose self-important angst precludes extended community caring or other cultural complexities or potentials at home or abroad. Moodysson’s grand statement of the danger to humanity of nurturance becoming extinct is certainly woolly by nature, oblivious to a herd of historical elephants in the room in addition to the stifling corollaries of courtly mother-worship. But the extravagant, undeserved hatefulness of the critics is revealing – misinterpreting both Mammoth’s success in nailing the grounds of their privilege, and its failures mirroring their inability to imagine alternatives.
Mammoth is out now on DVD.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 72, No. 5, March 2011.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk