His first English language film, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s Mammoth is a global story of haves and have nots intertwined with complex family relationships.
Whole World in his Hands by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Opening with a classic happy family scene, Leo and Ellen Vidales laugh and play with their daughter Jackie in the wide-open spaces of their Manhattan penthouse apartment. A young, urban over-achieving couple for the new millennium, Leo, played by Gael García Bernal, made his fortune through online gaming, while his wife, played by Michelle Williams, is a surgeon. Completing this picture of modern domestic bliss is their Filipina nanny Gloria who looks after seven year old Jackie.
Leo sets off on a business trip to Thailand to tie up an important deal. Flying on a private plane his partner gives him an extravagant gift – a $3,000 pen made from extinct mammoth bones. Clearly Leo wants for nothing material as he lines his gadgets up on the table in front of him. Meanwhile, coping with a harrowing case at work, his driven and ambitious wife struggles to adjust her sleep patterns to the demands of the nightshift. Jackie spends more and more time with Gloria, clearly missing her own children left behind in the Philippines.
Cared for by their grandmother Gloria regularly speaks to her two young sons by phone as they struggle to accept that her self-enforced absence is for their own good, to build them a better future. Having left her own children in someone else’s care she is thousands of miles away looking after the child of a couple too busy to care for their own. Himself a father of three, Moodysson recognises this as one of the film’s key themes, “children are often neglected and forgotten, and our whole society is built upon the fact that we actually have to work and leave our children so much.”
Bored by Bangkok as the protracted business negotiations drag on, Leo goes off in search of stimulation at the beach. Initially sickened by the sex trade rife in this corner of paradise he eventually strikes up an uneasy friendship with a young prostitute, Cookie; when not offering a “fun time” she compares notes with her colleagues as to the relative merits of the different nationalities of her clients. As her relationship with Leo develops it is revealed that she too has baby daughter back home being looked after by someone else while she plies her trade in the resorts.
As the world spins life goes on in each of the three locations, images cutting from country to country against an insistent soundtrack. Each character lives their life in a bubble, bystanders in their own existence. In New York Gloria buys gifts to send home, including a basketball marked Made in the Philippines; Ellen attempts to make lunch only to realise that her surgeon’s finely honed knife skills have left her able to make intricate fruit sculptures but unable to make food that can actually be eaten. In Thailand Leo eventually realises that it’s too late to play at being someone else and dashes back to Bangkok leaving the mammoth pen with Cookie who can only get $30 for it on the black market. In the Philippines, Gloria’s oldest son Salvador, falls victim to a predatory foreign sex tourist is rushed to hospital.
The spell is broken. Gloria dashes back to the Philippines to be by her son’s bedside, leaving Jackie alone in the cavernous apartment while her mother is working nights. Leo returns home laden down with gifts, happy to be back in the bosom of his family. Reunited, once again they hug and play and laugh together in their urban nest. Ambiguously, as the film ends Ellen is left wondering how they’ll get a new nanny.
Although well-acted, beautifully photographed and perfectly paced Mammoth courted controversy at the 2009 Berlinale receiving boos and whistles. Clearly perplexed by this, Moodysson hopes that others will be touched by the film. Accepting a political interpretation of the themes of worldwide disparity and the extreme wealth and materialism of Western culture, he describes it as a tapestry rather than an “accusation”. A layered and moving personal view of complex global issues, Mammoth is a film that undoubtedly asks more questions that it answers.
Mammoth is released in the UK on 5th November 2010