|Let the Right One In,
2008. Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar.
Synopsis: Oskar is a lonely boy who is bullied at school. At home, he lives with his mother, who has split with his father, in a desultory apartment block. One dark winter night, a car pulls up bearing a man and a little girl, who settle in next door to him. The man wanders out the next night and kills a teenage boy, intent on draining him of his blood. Meanwhile, as he fantasizes about taking his knife to the bullies at school, Oskar meets the girl, Eli. She's dark where Oskar is fair. She seems more self-possessed where Oskar is timid. And Oskar thinks she smells funny. They strike up a friendship. Oskar needs a friend, and Eli's curious habits don't bother him much. He's not stupid, but even after it's clear that Eli is a vampire, it doesn't bother him much. "How old are you?" he asks. "I'm twelve," she replies, "but I've been twelve for a very long time." Unfortunately for Oskar, his attempts to stand up to the bullies at school end badly, and Eli's helper proves to be less able than she needs, and their need for each other deepens...
Commentary: Let the Right One In was a bit of a surprise to me. I had seen the praise here and there, but I really didn't know what to expect. An anti-Twilight, I suppose, but that's not what I got. Well, no, that IS what I got, but not in the way I expected. This is a film that draws from a deep well of loneliness. Visually, it's a bleak and austere movie, composed in the main of long takes and snowy drabness. It's a film where you can feel the chill of winter radiate from the screen.
For me, though the surprise is in how it mixes it all up with a striking genderqueer ambiguity. I had no idea it was as queer a movie as it turned out to be, but it strikes exactly the right notes in this regard. Eli's insistence that "I'm not a girl," when Oskar asks if she'll be his girlfriend can be read in any number of ways: she's a vampire, she's an adult, she's...a boy? The movie further clouds this issue with a fleeting shot of a naked Eli where there's a ghastly scar where a penis should be. And no vagina? I don't think I saw one.
But never mind Eli for a minute. I think Oskar is a case of androgyny, too. I mean, Kåre Hedebrant, the boy who plays him is beautiful, and NOT in a masculine way. Is Oskar bullied because he's weak? Could he be bullied because he's androgynous? Is he bullied because his father is gay, suggesting to his bullies that he's gay? I think a case could be made. And is Oskar's father gay? The director of the film says not, but I don't think he realizes just how the scene with his dinner companion plays, meaningful glances and all. How could Oskar not feel like a third wheel here? In any event, I think that at least some of the loneliness that pervades the movie is the loneliness of queer children in a world that doesn't accept them.
Beyond the queer subtexts, I also like the idea that Eli is actually Oskar's id made flesh. We first see Eli immediately after Oskar is rehearsing the violent death of his enemies, for instance. The physical contrast between them hints at this too: Oskar being fair, Eli being dark. This particular coding of characters reminds me of how Ray Bradbury did something similar in Something Wicked This Way Comes (his Will Holloway is fair, his Jim Nightshade is dark). It also reminds me of Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, in which Elliot is the masculine persona among the twins (and the id), whilst Beverly is the feminine persona (and also the way the gendering of them becomes indistinct at the end as Bev increasingly refers to Elliiot as "Ely"--the similarity of names between this and Let the Right One In is surely accidental, but it's what sent me down this line of thought). I think this reading of the film more closely aligns the climax of the film with Carrie, because Eli becomes Oskar's substitute for telekinesis as his rage at his bullies is unleashed. You could also interpret Eli's apparent castration as symbolic of Oskar's own impotence. But that's harder to support from the movie, I guess.
Best of all, though, Let the Right One In functions as a horror movie on top of all of its other concerns; it plays by the rules of vampire mythology (including a ghastly demonstration of what happens when a vampire enters a home uninvited). The finale at the swimming pool is both ghastly and comic by turns, delivering the goods for the horror audience. And then...the movie demonstrates an admirable grasp of irony, though the irony is there from the outset (the scene with the dog is a good example). The very end of the movie seems hopeful and touching, but I found it utterly horrifying. After all, we saw what became of Eli's previous familiar. Did he start out as Oskar did? I think he might have.