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Inside Out 2012: ‘She Monkeys’ straddles the precarious equilibrium of genius and insanity

She Monkeys

Directed by Lisa Aschan

Written by Lisa Aschan and Josefine Adolfsson

Sweden, 2011

Oscar Levant once said, “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity”. Perhaps Levant was a genius (or perhaps he was insane), but the truth within his aphorism is both pithy and well documented. In cinema, the most notable auteurs have always been avant-garde, pushing the boundaries of our sensibilities with purposed provocation, and although Lisa Aschan’s She Monkeys isn’t nearly as groundbreaking as its influential predecessors, it nevertheless straddles the precarious equilibrium of genius and insanity.

When Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser), a girl of unflinching earnestness, resolves to join an equestrian acrobatics team, she encounters Cassandra (Linda Molin), her enigmatic teammate with a piercingly frigid persona. As they begin to bond, their relationship escalates with sudden intensity, resulting in a smorgasbord narrative of desire, love, rivalry, and power.

Initially, and ironically, the film spends a great amount of time horsing around. As we are dropped into its dazzlingly caustic world, the film routinely indulges in long, drawn out non-sequiturs that rapidly outstays its welcome. Although they serve as character exposition and as a holistic component to the overall story, there’s no justification for it being so excessive. Until we are generally acclimatized to the purpose and direction of the film, much of the beginning feels exorbitantly redundant.

But when the film finally comes into form, the institutionalized anomalies kick off with a venerable start. When we get a sense of where the characters are coming from, we begin to understand the directions that they go on, as disjointed and serpentine as they might be.

For example, Cassandra is a fascinating character when understood. Her relationship with Emma seems to have been carved with a double-edged sword. From caring to abrasive, Cassandra will have wildly capricious changes of heart, but as we amalgamate these puzzling pieces together, we get a clearer picture of her character. We come to see her tough love as a way to train Emma, but what kind of person does Cassandra want her to be? (hint: it isn’t to be a great equestrian acrobat)

This theme of social grooming becomes prevalent in She Monkeys (see the canine and equine metaphors), adding a powerful psychological dimension to the film. This is, perhaps, best embodied in Sara (Isabella Lindquist), Emma’s younger sister whom tries to woo a boy named Sebastian with her limited knowledge of femininity. She constantly takes advice from other people on how to be more ‘attractive’, which she takes heed of. Her story arc closely mirrors that of Emma’s, and as such, serves a similar narrative purpose.

For those that still have a hard time comprehending the film’s central conceit (which is entirely understandable), Lisa Aschan’s debut feature film can be seen as a homage and emulation of other idiosyncratic filmmakers, feeling like a picture that was conceptualized by Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies), written by Roy Andersson (You, the Living), and directed by the Coen brothers (Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

But with an aesthetic that’s simultaneously beautiful and disturbing, and with a tone of audacious cheek (notice the tumbleweeds), She Monkeys is an evocative film that is as challenging as it is rewarding – a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

– Justin Li

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