THE GUARDIAN ANGEL
Directed by Suzanne Osten
Written by Madeleine Gustafsson, Etienne Glaser, and Osten
With Philip Zanden, Etienne Glaser, Malin Ek, Bjorn Kjellman, Gunilla Roor, and Lena Nylen.
Once in a great while a film of such startling originality crops up that one is jolted into realizing how much of the cinema’s potential routinely remains unused. Suzanne Osten’s The Guardian Angel is one such film. Her triumph is to deftly interweave a national political life with domestic colloquy, and to show the degree to which the complexities of political life are echoed or even generated within the family.
The story is taken from a German novel by Ricarda Huch and set in a deliberately unspecified European country at some unspecified period early in this century. The movie draws on an eclectic range of news footage of street disturbances to stake out an allegorical rather than realistic territory. In this unnamed country a national crisis is developing, the result of a sadly familiar spiral of student protests countered by government repression. The government’s minister of the interior, Joel Birkman (Etienne Glaser), is determined to crush the youthful challengers, and retaliates by closing the universities and condemning a young hothead to death. When Birkman is warned that he’s marked for assassination, he takes refuge with his family in a country house, relying more on obscurity than on armed defenders for his safety.
Husband, wife, grown son, and two grown daughters are joined by Jacob (Philip Zanden), a handsome, recently hired secretary/bodyguard visibly awed by the weight of his new responsibilities. But Jacob’s loyalties actually lie with the rebels: his true mission is to liquidate the minister, and possibly his whole family, then escape. He has reason to be jumpy.
Jacob is no sooner installed than the purity of his ideological purpose is clouded. He comes close several times to carrying out his intention, but delays the decision. Not meant to sacrifice his own life, and probably unwilling to do so, he watches and waits–and our tension inexorably grows with his, for the Birkmans are no ordinary family and may at any time recognize the scorpion in their midst.
If shared imprisonment draws the family closer, isolation and danger also seem to heighten unfinished family business. Some of this is obscure but manifestly neurotic, leaving Jacob perplexed and anxious. Birkman’s wife, Livia (Malin Ek), on the edge of a nervous breakdown, often seems close to divining Jacob’s objective. Her elder daughter, Jessica (Lena Nylen), also seems on the edge of psychosis, and oscillates between the extremes of complicity with the others and deadly rivalry. Obsessed with the newcomer, she seduces him with the kind of tigerish rapacity one more often associates with rape. Purged, her feelings cool, and their interactions become more those of allies. Scorched by Jessica’s intensity into seeing her father with new eyes, Jacob lapses even further from his original purpose.
Though intimacy with his victims is making it difficult for Jacob to murder them, we are never treated to his self-examination–we infer it from his delaying and symptoms of self-disgust. The problem is Jacob himself: though good-looking, he is spiritually lifeless compared with the inventive, zany, and energetic Birkmans. Heavy, constrained, and unimaginative, Jacob is the archetypal product of a loveless childhood seeking catharsis through the emotionally undemanding projections of radical politics. He is out of his depth with the Birkmans, morally and emotionally unequipped to finish what he’s gotten into.
To make matters worse, he falls mutely and clumsily in love with Jessica’s virginal younger sister, Katja (Gunilla Roor). Dreamy and removed, she responds to Jacob like someone waking by stages from a drugged sleep–but when the possessive Jessica cottons on to what’s happening, there’s hell to pay. Predictably these developments further confound Jacob’s purpose; increasingly he’s like a ghost trying to cut in on a square dance.
Charming and ruthless, Birkman remains the undisputed head of his family, but his power is acceptable because he’s funny and cultivated. He leads his family in chamber-music recitals, and cares so little for his personal dignity that when the mood takes him he can romp and tell silly jokes. But he does come under attack for his politics from his children, principally from his son Welja (Bjorn Kjellman), who is very much interested by the issues but lacks the commitment to defy his father.
Jacob is uneasily fascinated. Here, one guesses, is the kind of loving family life the younger man has never seen, let alone experienced. And it remains his for the asking–just so long as he delays acting on his original purpose. Yet the longer he waits, the more likely the rebel leaders are to add him to their hit list. Unable to carry out his mission, he is becoming an accomplice to the problem as the rebels see it.
The power of The Guardian Angel lies in the fact that none of this is verbalized. The moral dilemmas all emerge from the spectacle of willful characters locked in powerful and unpredictable struggle, some of which remains in a realistic obscurity. The main characters are wonderfully and truthfully complex, but some minor ones are too monolithic–Livia in particular has too little scope for the lengthy screen time she occupies, and as an actress Ek is driven to repeat herself over and over. Sometimes the lack of motivation can seem unnatural–I saw no reason for the sexual relations between Jessica and Jacob to cease as abruptly as they had begun.
But this is to carp when the movie is elsewhere miraculously articulate. Film has the reputation of handling abstract ideas poorly; but here, avoiding all didacticism, Osten uses her stumbling Jacob to delineate a balanced but unstable scale of justice. On the left we have the justified anger of a populace driven to protest deeply felt (but unspecified) grievances, and on the right is the cultivated, charming, but authoritarian patriarchy whose philosophy is derived from the prosperous but repressive doctrine of feudalism. Whose reality is ultimately the better and deserves to survive?
Jacob’s action–if he takes it–might turn the national life in a positive direction, but that’s a gamble. And to carry it out would put the end before the means. At an immediate human level, Jacob would destroy people whom he has not been able to resist loving and by whom he has been loved himself. To destroy them would be to destroy his own awakened soul.
Never preachy, The Guardian Angel demonstrates the continuity between family and nation, between microcosm and macrocosm. Birkman remains in control because he has conviction and commitment–indeed his unconcern about his own protection seems to arise from an almost religious certainty about his right to stamp out insurrection. But conviction does not make a person right, and we know from Birkman’s occasional authoritarian ruthlessness that he and his kind are too dictatorial to survive. Yet how much more charismatic he is than poor Jacob!
Still, history is on Jacob’s side, not the minister’s. The son must depose the father in order to grow up, but the inevitable process is abhorrent, even tragic to behold. The film is both willing and able to make us confront this.
Bubbling away in the family crucible is another historically mounting pressure–the right to sexual self-expression. Osten’s honesty is shocking in its very casualness. We witness the sex life of each main character, including that of the aging minister and his wife, who often just lie in nude companionship on their bed. Contrasted with Jessica’s psychotic cravings and Jacob and Katja’s tentative yearnings, their relationship seems peaceful and complete. Nowhere in Osten’s film is there the contrived erotic titillation, the male-oriented fantasies of sex we see elsewhere. Instead, Osten turns her frank gaze on the way sex really works, particularly on how both men and women use it to test their power.
Osten handles these matters confidently, never bombastically. She sets in motion deeply interesting characters, tells a good story, and throws light on some hefty issues–the family and its structure, individual rights and powers, the limits and contradictions inherent in carrying out a political ideology, and the human price tag of terrorism.
A large element of the film’s success lies in its form. Shot ravishingly in black and white, often using a nervously acute hand-held camera, the film conveys not the thought but the awareness of its central character. The film sets us afloat on the consciousness of a man threatened by self-doubt and the constant fear of being unmasked; he lives with an unfamiliar intensity and subjectivity. The viewer is bombarded with evidence of the bewildering oppositions that Jacob perceives and endures: alternations between beauty and the grotesque, between plain evidence and complete mystery, between harmony and dissonance, between the security of being loved and the threat of one’s loathsome secret self being found out. Never does the film permit Jacob to debate or even express the burden of his inner state. Instead The Guardian Angel makes us share it.
The film’s abrupt narrative style, full of jump cuts, is as fleet, economical, and original as its intellectual content is strong. It combines the intoxicating formal and political breadth of Godard at his very best with Bergman’s intensity and insight into family life. Osten, a Swedish writer and film and theater director who shows a masterly rapport with her actors, may indeed emerge as Bergman’s successor. Her Birkman and Livia may even be based upon the famous Bergman/Liv Ullman partnership–parental figures surely ripe for demolition by anyone in the Swedish cinema serious about claiming his or her autonomy. True or false, it matters not, for The Guardian Angel soars above the sum of its parts.