Now playing: Pure | Bleader

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Now playing: Pure

Posted By on 03.06.12 at 03:30 PM

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Alicia Vikander and Samuel Foler in Pure
  • Alicia Vikander and Samuel Foler in Pure
There are enough juvenile delinquents in this year’s European Union Film Festival that they could make up their own sidebar event. Wayward teens are the main characters of Belle Épine and Avé, playing next week, and they make appearances in Innocence, Cousinhood, and Blood of My Blood (they’re also the focus of Clip, a Serbian film that recently won an award at the Rotterdam Film Festival). Are there more bad kids in Europe now, or have they just gotten more photogenic? Regardless, these movies feature plenty of good-looking young adults undressing or talking about sex, and they’re sure to provoke charges of exploitation as well as defenses of their underlying humanism. With the exception of the relatively chaste Avé, all of them straddle exploitation and humanism in such a way that neither label seems particularly accurate—ultimately, they occupy the same moral gray zone as the films of Larry Clark.

Of the EU Festival films to take on teen delinquents directly, the one I admire most is Pure, which screens again tomorrow at 6 PM. It hinges on an extraordinary performance by the young actress Alicia Vikander, which received so much attention in the movie’s native Sweden that she started getting offers from Hollywood soon after the film's release. She plays a 20-year-old high school dropout who wasted her late adolescence through laziness and bouts of promiscuity. The girl isn’t stupid—we know this from the beginning when we hear talk about the romantic impact of Mozart’s music—but she lacks direction. She’s the sort of person who expects life to happen to her, then feels resentful when it doesn’t. In a miraculous turn (thank goodness for the movies!), she gets an administrative job at a major symphony that appears to give her life the direction it needs. But when the symphony’s hotshot conductor seduces her, she misreads his intentions and puts herself at greater risk than she ever was in high school.

This role asks a lot of Vikander. She’s asked to exploit certain qualities that are common enough in 20-year-olds—namely, gullibility and overconfidence—but at the same time to look at them critically. Her Katarina is neither terrible nor overly sympathetic: her adult persona is too unformed to merit such definite conclusions. In pulling off such a complex characterization, Vikander demonstrates a remarkable self-awareness that’s rare in people her age, if not people in general. She even makes the movie’s trickiest emotional turn—her improbable infatuation with the conductor—seem natural. Katarina doesn’t fall for this man because she desires his upper-class lifestyle or because she’s promiscuous or because she needs to resolve some daddy issues (though Vikander’s performance is so nuanced that all three reasons register as subconscious factors). It’s because he communicates emotion during sex, which Katarina, for all her sexual experience, seems not to have known before. It’s the promise of adulthood that draws her to him, the exciting possibility that she may have made the right mistake for once in her life.

I had a brilliant friend in high school who lapsed into drug addiction for several years; it started when he was around 17. For a while, he remained as engaging a storyteller as he’d ever been (he dreamed of becoming a novelist), and I envied his sense of adventure even when I worried about his future. He had a saying, “Break enough eggs and eventually you’ll get an omelet.” It’s this foolhardy optimism that inspires so many dumb mistakes in late adolescence, and one of the things that most impressed me about Vikander’s performance in Pure is how authentically it pays tribute to this love of life while acknowledging its many hazards.

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