Transgender Sebastian/Ellie falls hard for straight-identified Andreas in “Something Must Break,” a determinedly transgressive romance of intermittent interest from Ester Martin Bergsmark. Though the transgender helmer (“She Male Snails”) makes some reasonable points about the boundary-less nature of desire and love, he seems to think that marginalized people are, ipso facto, fascinating — if only it were true. Strong scenes compete with moody filler and pseudo-provocation, making for an uneven though at times worthwhile experience. Rotterdam’s Tiger award will help attract edgy fest bookings, while queer showcases were inevitable takers anyway.
As with far too many pics whirling around notions of identity, “Something Must Break” has sporadic voiceover narration, here featuring Sebastian (Saga Becker) remarking, “In the darkness, amongst the shadows, is where I’m free,” and similar stuff. Roommate Lea (Shima Niavarani) tells him he has no sense of reality, thereby explaining some of the character’s more ambiguous stares and behavior. With his long red hair, prominent nose ring and thin, aquiline features, Sebastian’s permeable gender identification goes hand-in-hand with his physical presentation.
He’s rescued by the James Dean-ish Andreas (performance artist Iggy Malmborg) during a restroom bashing; by chance, they meet again a short time later and the two engage in various prankish behaviors in and out of bed. Then Andreas announces, “I’m not gay,” to which Sebastian replies, “Me neither.” In one of recent cinema’s more romantic lines, Andreas responds, “You’re so beautiful I want to vomit.”
Andreas’ revelation of heterosexuality comes as something of a surprise to both Sebastian and the audience, the former especially because his transgender identification means he sees a fluidity in relationships that Andreas has a hard time accepting. Increasingly, Sebastian wants to be called Ellie, and struggles with the idea of erasing his Sebastian self to let Ellie come to the fore. Andreas can’t deal and puts distance between them, yet the attraction won’t go away.
Sebastian’s sullenness in the first half wears thin and does little to make him intriguing, though he takes on a more intelligently defiant tone in the better second half as he hesitantly gains confidence. The script, co-written by Bergsmark and Eli Leven, his collaborator on “She Male Snails,” owes Andreas’ character a bit more development beyond his rather unformed conception as a confused straight guy with a biker jacket: What is there about Sebastian that draws him in and takes hold of his desires?
The director often aims for a certain poetic interiority, which he betrays with scenes of groaning unsubtlety. The opening image of pink roses followed by closeups of large thorns is OK, but is it really necessary, following a low point in Sebastian’s psyche, to cut to a shot of a wall being knocked down? Even sillier is a sequence set to Peggy Lee’s yearningly ethereal rendition of “You’re My Thrill,” with Sebastian being peed on in slow-mo while posed like Jesus in a Pieta. Perhaps Bergsmark meant to shock the bourgeoisie — hardly the target demographic — but instead it just plays like immature (and unsuccessful) provocation.
Slightly shaky lensing, with frequent closeups and occasional graininess, imparts a sense of dreamlike breathlessness that suits the film’s tone and matches the edginess of the characters. The varied musical selections are generally well chosen (with the exception of “You’re My Thrill”), yet the samplings cry out for more forceful integration.