Can Music Soothe the Savage Breast? (Film Review: “Pure”)

Can the sanctuary of Music insulate a troubled soul before desperation becomes deadly? Alicia Vikander shines in the Swedish drama, Pure.

SnapShot Plot

Admittedly, I’m on an Alicia Vikander kick, having recently recommended the Oscar-winning sci-fi film, Ex Machina as well as the historical drama, A Royal Affair a while back. And after her big win at last week’s Academy Awards, picking up Best Supporting Actress for her turn in The Danish Girl, it seems this lovely young star is the new international ‘It’ girl. I like to think of her as Sweden’s own Natalie Portman, in fact. And in this 2009 film in which she carries the entire show, Vikander doesn’t disappoint.

In Pure, she plays Katarina, a troubled young woman with a particular past. Between her train wreck of a mother (in a secondary yet intense performance by Josephine Bauer), a mediocre relationship with her live-in boyfriend (Martin Wallström), her own spotted reputation around town, and an inclination toward sudden and violent outbursts, Katarina is going nowhere fast. In a compellingly ironic opening shot, the camera (in an intense close-up of her luminous face) reveals a person transfixed by the power of classical music, although her personal voiceover couldn’t be more banal, more ordinary. This discordant moment encapsulates the dramatic tension about to build within Katarina, as she yearns to be more than the sum of her historical parts. Early in the movie, she drags her boyfriend to a performance of Mozart, and there in the audience she is so utterly moved that we can see her panic, as if she is barely able to hold back tears for the music’s powerful impact upon her. A quietly astonishing cinematic moment.

Her attraction to the music hall is so strong in Katarina that it becomes its own sort of gravitational pull, clearly symbolizing the sense of order and beauty so deficit in her own haphazard life. Very much the scrappy imposter, she talks her way into a low-level job and gains the attention of the orchestra’s egotistical conductor, Adam. Swedish actor, Samuel Fröler strikes the perfect note as the Everyman philosopher covering up a pretty standard narcissism. His friendly interest – including lots of half-baked platitudes and quotes from Kierkegaard –  go far in convincing an impressionable Katarina that if she exhibits the right kind of attitude in life, the world (and the man) can be her oyster. But here’s where Pure could have easily gone off the rails and didn’t. Instead of disintegrating into a predictable and torrid little pot-boiler, what emerges is a kind of Renaissance within Katarina, to the point that the relationship itself seems secondary to the world of culture and art opening up around her. You may argue that Katarina does indeed go off the rails over her doomed affair with Adam – and indeed she does – but my sense was that in her mind, he was more symbol than flesh, that Adam’s deepest value to her was to serve as the conduit to the world he represented, to which she wanted ‘in’.

Vikander is not only an actress of great emotional depth, whose expressive face reflects the tiniest nuance of changing feeling, but she carries a physical bearing which makes her entirely irresistible. She manages to convey Katarina’s anxiety and panic in the simplest of gestures, especially as she’s struggling to master office equipment or straighten out her work station. There’s a scene in a public library in which she practically tears open a package of headphones, as if she’ll burst if she doesn’t get them on her ears, and at the moment she begins to listen, that’s when she can finally breathe deeply. Just one of many small moments that made the character so real, so vulnerable.


“Courage is Life’s Only Measure”

Parting Shot

Written and directed by Lisa Langseth and based on her own play entitled, “The Loved One”, this is the movie which scored the Guldbagge Award (Sweden’s equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actress) for Alicia Vikander. And deservedly so. It’s shocking that this was Vikander’s first feature film, and the directorial debut of Langseth.

The takeaway is firmly held by Katarina’s level gaze at the camera. Whether you see her as damaged goods or something much more unhinged, one thing remains clear. Her Katarina is such a captivating blend of innocence, yearning and rage that you can’t help but identify with her character’s desperate attempts to fit in, in a world for which she’s completely unprepared, even to the point at which her abject humiliation makes her deadly. This is not a performance to be missed. And you don’t even have to buy a ticket!

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