If there's one man on the planet who knows how to market rustic charms to the masses, it's Paddy Maloney. As the mercurial leader of Ireland's phenomenal traditional ensemble the Chieftains, he's outdistanced countless Celtic contemporaries, trotting his group's unmistakable sound around the globe. Who better, then, to provide the music for Under the Sun, a film so deeply ensconced in sweet country ideals that it teeters on the edge of schmaltzy farce before wooing us with its elegant delivery? Much like Maloney's tin whistle, the movie is deceptively simple, supported by nuanced arrangements at appropriate intervals, featuring a fusion of score and image strong enough to override the puzzling incongruity of Irish melodies blossoming in the heart of Sweden.
Directed by Englishman Colin Nutley — who's been so busy making Swedish films (House of Angels, Such Is Life) that he hasn't directed a movie in his native tongue for over a decade — Under the Sun is gentle and gorgeous, honoring atmosphere over attitude. In a weird way, it's also an unusual example of extreme filmmaking, with the extreme in this case being honeyed luminosity. Released in Europe in 1998 but finally popping up here last year with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film (nudging out the edgier Scandinavian effort, Mifune), this project requires patience of its viewers but pays off emotionally once we're immersed in its rich Cinemascope views. Much like the hit Gypsy documentary Latcho Drom or the sharp indie comedy Pants on Fire — both handled by the same distributor — Under the Sun sidesteps Hollywood fodder to offer a fresh perspective.
The narrative itself is but a wisp, based on a short story (H.E. Bates' “The Little Farm”) concerning a lonely rural bachelor, his uppity young friend, and the charming, sexy lady who challenges them both. It's 1956, and paunchy, middle-aged Olof (veteran Swedish stage actor Rolf Lassgård) has lived alone on his farm somewhere in the Swedish countryside since his mother died nine years prior, attended only by the brash, opportunistic Erik (Johan Widerberg). Olof's a pro when it comes to slaughtering chickens and punching udders, but since he has never learned how to read or write, he depends upon Erik's assistance in fiscal and legal matters. This helps to explain why Olof drives a square's sedan while Erik speeds around in a convertible hot rod or in a cart behind a pricey thoroughbred.
When we meet Olof, he's at a crossroads, mocked (and poked in the pecker) by Erik, with the only news of the day being the death of an elderly neighbor. Propelled by need, he nervously ventures into the nearby town's newspaper office to cast a romantic wish in the form of a help-wanted ad: “Lonely farmer, 39, own car. Seeks young lady housekeeper.” After the surprisingly compassionate editorial assistant (Gunilla Röör) helps him spell it out, and the not-surprisingly cynical minister (Jonas Falk) sneaks a disapproving glance at the copy, Olof adds a crucial coda to his message: “Photograph appreciated.”
After a few days, there are only two responses to the ad. One of them — perhaps intended as some sort of in-joke, given that its author, Anne Persson, is also listed among the technical credits — lacks a photo and is clearly a no-go, as the dippy young woman proclaims her own weakness and lack of skills. The other, however, reveals Ellen (Helena Bergström), a sleek blonde who's actually eager to take the position, who likes Olof and his cozy old cottage at first sight. Almost immediately, she moves in with the bumbling fellow, taking on the cooking and cleaning, even transforming the morning ritual of dumping the chamber pots into a coy symbol of human appreciation.
In the hands of many filmmakers, the next step would be to unleash Olof's burgeoning lust as a rape or to exploit Ellen as a psycho-tramp out to scam the old dork and ball his little buddy, but Nutley's hand is steadier than that. While his delivery is indeed a bit conservative (virtually synonymous with “Academy Award nomination”), there's no lack of sensuality here — people do it, horses do it, and Widerberg cheerfully shows us his total lack of secondary sex characteristics. There's even some kink when one considers that the director is married to his lead actress, which, given the presence of big, randy Olof, is sort of like filming one's wife being wildly humped by John Goodman.
That's a pretty fair comparison, as Olof is basically a European version of the lonely bear Goodman played in David Byrne's sublime Texas fairy tale True Stories. (If it serves your star fetish, Bergström's also something of a ringer for Ellen Barkin.) As the title and the framing narration suggest, there really isn't anything new down here on Earth, but there's great pleasure to be had in reworking familiar elements. By letting us see both into and through the eyes of Olof and Ellen, Nutley suggests that finding love may not be so difficult, but figuring out what to do with it can be supremely challenging.
There's some craftiness here as well, since, ostensibly, this is Olof's story, but as it evolves we discover that we're really examining the varied needs of Ellen, who finds herself presented with both a clumsy, lovable teddy bear and a tough-talking horndog. Erik's presence in the story provides an important point of contrast as Ellen works out just how much of his braggadocio really matters to her: His purported “hundreds” of conquests, his James Dean vogueing, and his shaking hands with Elvis Presley all fail to impress her.
Under the Sun includes some delicious eroticism, but it's even more successful in delivering an earthy sensuality that's bigger than sex. It's about power struggles and distrust and deceit (all handled somewhat obliquely), and it's about the spark of love, but ultimately it's about sustaining love — if indeed that's even possible.