There are few things less compelling than a reverential biopic that strips a fascinating human life of all blemishes and shortcomings. How can one be expected to get involved in the plight of a mortal character who makes all the right decisions, resists every destructive temptation and realizes all of their dreams before the final fade out? The good feature-length biographies understand that it is the failures of their human subjects that make the successes all the more remarkable and inspirational, not to mention dramatically satisfying.
Per Fly’s “Waltz for Monica” (a.k.a. “Monica Z” in Sweden), a very good biopic, is one of the crown jewels of the 17th Annual European Union Film Festival running through March at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The hit drama garnered seven accolades at Sweden’s equivalent for the Oscars, the Guldbagge Awards, including one for its leading lady, Edda Magnason, a Swedish/Icelandic singer-songwriter making her feature debut. She was signed to the Paradigm Talent Agency immediately after winning the Shooting Stars Award at last month’s Berlinale, and it’s easy to see why.
Magnason is tasked with portraying the iconic Swedish jazz singer Monica Zetterlund, who broke new ground for female singers in her home country, refusing to stick with familiar English covers while opting instead to write original tunes in her native tongue. As in “Walk the Line,” the most impressive thing about “Monica” is watching a performer fully inhabit the persona of a musical legend while relying solely on her own voice. No lip-synching is required for Magnason, whose voice is flat-out captivating. I was wholly unaware of Zetterlund prior to entering the theater, and by the end, I was eager to download her work on iTunes. I imagine any jazz fan whose foot can’t resist tapping during the first few seconds of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” will share my delight.
Instead of placing Zetterlund on a pedestal, screenwriter Peter Birro makes the crucial decision to remove any trace of sugar-coated sentimentality from his heroine’s monstrous level of ambition. She has no qualms with using people in order to achieve the sort of stardom that will ensure a comfortable home life for her young daughter, a weary-eyed soul who spends much of her time with her even wearier grandparents. Blinding herself to the romantic interest of a kind-hearted fellow musician (Sverrir Gudnason), repelled his “nobody” status, she throws herself with ludicrous abandon at “I Am Curious” director Vilgot Sjöman (played with goofy sweetness by Oskar Thunberg).
The film’s most hilarious sequence occurs when Sjöman conducts Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” as he and Zetterlund take part in an exuberant striptease (the morning after, he replies, “I actually have ‘The Complete Works of Wagner’”). He’s clearly a kook, but his love for her is as genuine as her’s is deceitful, and there’s a touching moment when he defends her maligned performance in a Eurovision contest, arguing that such manufactured cultural events amount to little more than hollow hype (a line that chillingly foreshadows the endless conga line of pompous judges and needy narcissists currently clogging prime time slots worldwide). Birro and Magnason make no attempt to soften Zetterlund’s unsympathetic edges or justify her wrongheaded behavior, and she emerges as a far more vivid and compelling character because of it. We don’t always agree with her choices, but we always understand why she makes them.
The heart of the film lies not in any of Zetterlund’s love affairs but in her heartbreakingly wounded relationship with her father (Kjell Bergqvist). Though the film offers a rather pat answer for his deep-seated resentments, Bergqvist brilliantly conveys the man’s self-loathing frustration that he can barely suppress while attempting to discipline his grown daughter. He can holler until the walls shake, but Zetterlund’s unfazed expressions suggest that she’s heard it all before. Of course, his anger at her irresponsible parenting is justified, but it’s his lack of a belief in his daughter’s obvious gifts that remains a mystery—until a sublime, long-distance encounter late in the picture that renews one’s faith in the old-fashioned tear-jerker.
Editor’s Note: My chief complaint is the lack of screen time devoted to Zetterlund’s inspired comedic number where she dons an old lady disguise and takes part in a dance number so manic, Carol Burnett would’ve been envious.
“Waltz for Monica” screens Tuesday, March 11th, at 6pm. For tickets and a full festival schedule, click here.