11 September 2010

Pelle the Conqueror

As you may recall, I was particularly impressed by the film Twist and Shout (Tro, håb og kærlighed, 1984) by Bille August some months ago. I thus had moderate expectations for Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle erobreren, 1987).

Of course, I also went in to it expecting it to be a bit different as well. Afterall, Twist and Shout is a very realistic story set in the 1960s. Pelle the Conquerer is a historical costume drama, a specific genre of films in Scandinavian that are set in earlier centuries. The best known example of a Nordic costume drama is probably Babette's Feast (Babettes gæstebud, 1987), which I had watched previously.

Character-centric storytelling
Given that Babette's Feast had a very thematic focus, I was expecting Pelle the Conqueror to follow suit. What I mean is, Babette's Feast was primarily concerned with its themes of religion, food, and lost loves. The ultimate impact and focus of the film is the feast itself and all it represents within the prudent Christian community. So I was expecting something similar to turn up with Pelle. Furthermore, given that "Conqueror" part, I was expecting something more... grandiose. I mean, it sounds like Alexander the Great or something. To be honest, I didn't really know what to expect plot-wise, but it certainly wasn't what I got.

The film I watched was, actually, surprisingly reminiscent of Twist and Shout with regards to its narrative focus, as it's primarily about the characters (and, not surprisingly, Pelle). Despite the auspicious title, Pelle is not a great leader, warrior, or anything like that. No, Pelle is a young boy, and an immigrant servant at that.

A struggle for freedom
The film opens with Pelle and his father on a ship from Sweden that is bound for Denmark. Pelle begs his elderly father, Lasse, to tell him again about how wonderful Denmark will be, which Lasse paints as a sort of paradise on earth, where food and drink are plentiful and the wages are so high that children can just play all day long. However, once they finally arrive on land, no one will hire them due to their age (too old and too young). After everyone has left, a wealthy man passes through and decides to hire them.

Pelle gazes longingly as the ship
sails into the Danish harbour.
Their new life is anything but paradise, as they share a small cubbyhole of a room in the barn, which contrasts strongly against the rich and lavish home of their new master and his wife.

The rest of the film chronicles Pelle and Lasse's lives together as servants. Throughout the course of the film, Pelle learns Danish through his interactions with the other servants and in class, and as his primary mode of conversation switches from Swedish to Danish, he grows in confidence in his interactions with those around him.

Numerous other developments wax and wane as the story progresses, with one of the more major ones revolving around another servant by the name of Erik, who tends to be the most defiant and rebellious towards their master. Aside from the primary relationship of Pelle and Lasse, which is at the heart, Erik is probably Pelle's closest friend, and they both share a dream of escaping one day to America, where they can then travel to China, Spain, Mexico, and all the world.

The film ultimately sets up two different goals for the struggling workers. One, embodied by Lasse, is to come in to enough money to finally live the good life. As the film unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that hard work will not accomplish this goal, and Lasse begins to pursue a rich woman whose husband has been missing at sea for over a year and is presumed dead. The plan seems to be, more or less, to play it safe and smart and marry into money. Essentially, to "find a good wife to take care of you."

Erik, of course, has less practical goals. His is the dream of freedom, perhaps even the dream of flight. It is the desire to fly away and to see new and beautiful things.

To conquer the world
In the end, the film is a touching story of one little boy's journey in life, and his ultimate desire to "conquer the world." This phrase is used specifically by Erik in regards to his desire for freedom. To be liberated is to become in control of one's own life, rather than be subjected to the fancies of others. Despite the short time frame of the film, it is an epic in its own right.

However, I don't think it quite affected me as much as Twist and Shout. I did enjoy it a lot, but it didn't resonate quite as much. Perhaps I like a bit more of a contemporary vibe? Whatever the reason, it just didn't click as much. Don't get me wrong, it was still a great movie, but unlike Twist and Shout, I think it's just one I'll be happy having seen, but not necessarily owning. As for Twist and Shout, I don't know why I have not bought the DVD yet...

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