Bona-fide scoundrels are seldom a movie’s centerpiece, and the character in the middle of helmer Axel Petersen’s splendid debut feature “Avalon,” doesn’t quite qualify as a hard-core villain. Still, the baggy-eyed ex-party boy, ex-felon, club promoter and general reprobate, played by Johannes Brost, is a longshot for sympathy, which makes Petersen’s moral juggling act seem all the more impressive. The usual distrib obstacles will apply to this Swedish-language production, but Petersen is a talent to watch, and specialty houses could do respectable biz with a film that echoes some of the best of recent Scandinavian art cinema.
The ’80s haven’t ended for Janne (Brost). True, he’s just gotten free of a court-ordered ankle bracelet (what he did to deserve it isn’t quite explained), but now he’s gone into partnership with Klas (Peter Carlberg), to open a new nightclub in the Swedish suburbs, called Avalon (inspired by the Roxy Music hit, which is part of the soundtrack). Klas has gone to some shady sources for financing, but all is going well — it’s tennis week at Bastad and the customers are lining up. Then Janne and his equally irresponsible sister, Jackie (terrific first-timer Leonore Ekstrand) go drinking and driving, knock down some scaffolding and kill a Lithuanian immigrant who’s been working on the roof.
For most of its first half, “Avalon” is a Dogma 95 film: It’s shot under natural light, without melodramatic intrusions into the storyline, and there is no music, save for what comes through a car radio or PA system. This strategy changes eventually (and effectively, with help from Julian Hruza’s score), but the atmosphere created up to the point of impact is as spare as Janne’s soul: When he digs the dead young man out from under the wreckage, he gives no thought to calling the police — or the victim’s family, or his girlfriend, who shows up looking for him. The body is eventually disposed of by two of Klas’ “financiers,” who are not only expecting their share of profits from the club, but a service fee for body removal.
Janne is a fascinating void, a moral bankrupt and broken beauty: Although damaged from years of drugs and alcohol, he retains a certain charisma — the wrinkles and occasionally vacant stares unable to completely disguise the handsome man beneath. Brost, who makes Janne wonderfully debauched and corrupt, also moves like a man who’s retained his youth. That image is contagious — and makes it doubly terrible when Janne’s world starts to spins out of control, and one watches him collapsing from within.
Brost’s performance is remarkable, and largely internalized: He is most effective when silent, and thinking, not very deeply and not very profoundly, but in context of how to avoid responsibility. Ekstrand, helmer Petersen’s aunt, is a find, and Carlberg has several startling moments, including one where he returns to the club and learns the Lithuanian is dead. Shock is a cliched emotion in film; Carlberg makes it fresh.
The denouement of “Avalon” is itself rather shocking, but only if one is expecting reform, rehabilitation or guilt. It’s a fascinating and ultimately haunting movie, partly because of the way Petersen choreographs his characters, but also because of those characters themselves.
Production values are fine, including some spectacular cinematography by Mans Mansson.