A pudgy man and a lithe woman who may be the embodiment of his inner girl cavort in Romanian rubbish dumps and ruins around Chernobyl while a voiceover incants a skittish, fantasy-filled interior monologue in "Container." Or at least that's one way of unpacking helmer Lukas Moodysson's mesmerizing cinematic box of tricks.
A pudgy man and a lithe woman who may be the embodiment of his inner girl cavort in Romanian rubbish dumps and ruins around Chernobyl while a voiceover incants a skittish, fantasy-filled interior monologue in “Container.” Or at least that’s one way of unpacking helmer Lukas Moodysson’s mesmerizing cinematic box of tricks, a film so unabashedly avant-garde it makes his challenging last, “A Hole in My Heart,” look like “Nanny McPhee.” “Container” should spill riches for a tiny constituency of highbrows at arty venues, but will earn barely enough to fill a piggy bank until it hits ancillary.
“Container” has no story as such, and could be interpreted as a dream or a view inside a troubled mind, although whose mind it’s inside of — the people onscreen, Lukas Moodysson’s, the universe’s — is open to debate. The voiceover (by a whispery Jena Malone) very rarely literally matches the visible action.
First-person voiceover would seem to be jumbled thoughts of a heavy-set Swedish man (Peter Lorentzon), who talks about containing a woman inside him, although to call him a transsexual may be too reductive. The notion of “inside” figures big here, and the voiceover also talks about Jesus in the Virgin Mary’s womb, and how “there is room for everything inside of me — tissues, and glasses and all of Africa.”
Strobing cuts between the man and a slim woman of Asian descent (dancer Mariha Aberg) suggest she may be the woman inside him, whom in several long takes he carries on his back like a child or demon through decrepit buildings.
In addition to these people, pic offers shots of an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of human figures and objects of all kinds. In film’s press notes, Moodysson talks of having worked on a project about tsunamis that was abandoned after a real one hit Southeast Asia in 2004, but the idea seems to survive in the detritus that litters the screen here, as if a vast wave had churned everything up.
Meanwhile, Malone’s voiceover is similarly awash with alternative personalities, some of which are Paris Hilton, a disturbed self-loathing mental patient who may be the man seen onscreen, and Malone herself. The voice endlessly lists things, offers slivers of possible autobiography, and muses on celebrities. Off-kilter humor is generated just by the peculiar juxtapositions and shifts of topic, all spoken in the same girlish, Hollywood drone. Rapturously beautiful lines (“God transforms prayer into fire,”) shimmer for an instant and then it’s back to the Spice Girls, nuclear fallout and Jesus.
Arthouse film buffs will see parallels with filmmaker Stan Brakhage (especially in the rapid-fire montages), Andrei Tarkovsky and many others, while visual artists such as Jenny Holzer may also be touchstones.
But Moodysson’s own hand is the most palpable one here. Even if this aesthetically appears nothing like his earlier, conventional films such as “Show Me Love,” “Together” and “Lilya 4-Ever,” there’s a throughline that connects those films’ lonely characters with the schizoid personality at the heart of “Container.” Even so, many fans of those earlier films will hate this. Pic is closest in tone to “A Hole in My Heart,” but without the shots of vaginal and open-heart surgery or the sex.
Black-and-white lensing on Kodak Tri-X 16mm reversal stock by Jesper Kurlandsky and helmer himself, pushed several stops, has a snowy nap in its whites and sooty depths to its blacks. Seventy-four minute running time will seem an hour too much for some, but just right for others.