Swedish film director Lisa Aschan has said that a western is about sex, power and animals, but also what it means to be a man. In She Monkeys (2011) men are replaced with women, there’s no explicit and bloody violence or any sex, but the story is driven like a western with images and body language, rather than with dialogue.
She Monkeys is Aschan’s debut film, and it has received international recognition. It won the Dragon Award for Best Nordic film at Gothenburg film festival, and the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
She Monkeys is about Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) – a fifteen year old girl who’s obsessed with control. When she joins an equestrian gymnastics team, she meets an equally self-disciplined girl, the team leader Cassandra (Linda Molin). From this initial moment they become friends, but a power struggle with sexual undertones ensues, a jockeying for the top position of the vaulting team is taking place.
I think the inclusion of equestrian vaulting is a great choice. It adds further meaning to Emma and Cassandra, but it also sheds light on how Lisa Aschan works as a director. Doing gymnastics on the back of a horse is both physically and mentally demanding, and requires that the horse and the gymnast communicate, find a rhythm and a shared goal, at the same time as the gymnast controls, with restrained measured force and discipline the incredible strength of the horse. Emma and Cassandra are drawn to this sport because they like discipline, but unlike Cassandra, Emma does not have the typical good looks or charm. When Emma isn’t picked for the Voltige competition, her teacher tells her that it’s not all about control and strength, that she needs to work on her charisma. I like to read this as Lisa Aschan’s self-conscious commentary on She Monkeys as a movie. As Aschan has said in several interviews, she too is drawn to control. This is visible in the films cinematography and acting, which is very restrained and composed. Whatever is seen, is what there is. No information is given to us about what town the film takes place in, or why the father of Emma is bringing up his two children alone. But Aschan knows that the Voltige teacher is right, that you can’t make a movie that doesn’t have some charm. This is why Emma and Cassandra’s story, which is both captivating and unpleasant is also supported by a well-crafted and at times comedic coming-of-age subplot about Emma’s younger sister.
Sara (Isabella Lindquist) is eight years old, confronted with the difficult beginnings of sexuality and what it means to be a woman. At a swimming lesson she’s told that she must wear a bikini top if she is to continue the lesson. She finds the situation awkward, goes and hides behind a large plant, seems not to fully understand why she needs a bikini. But later she asks her predominantly off-screen-absent father for one. In a shop she picks a savvy leopard bathing suit. Later on, wearing the leopard bathing suit, she tries to entice her much older cousin Sebastian with a dance routine.
She Monkeys tightens as time rolls by like a thread ready to snap by the force of the horses’ hooves and breathing that punctuates the scenes and sets a rhythm, a soundtrack that supplements the unfolding consequences of Emma and Cassandra’s competition, a subtle but concentrated development that awaits contraction and release of tension. The movie as a whole, as I’ve briefly mentioned, is just as disciplined and at time’s impressive as the equestrian vaulting, but it is also sometimes stiff and lame just like the gymnast on the horses. But at other times it’s really enjoyable in its balance of humor and drama, like the moment when Sara does her dance routine for Sebastian.
But don’t get the wrong idea. She Monkeys is not about girls in bikinis giving lap dances on jumping horses. This movie has been made in reaction to films showing weak teenage girls in a male dominated world. Emma, Cassandra and Sara are strong individuals with a close resemblance to how people really are, and are therefore not easy to sympathize with at all times. But this only gives the film an edge and intriguing quality.
Salomon Rogberg is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.