"All Things Fair," an exquisitely wrought, beautifully acted coming-of-age tale that is a best foreign film Oscar nominee, returns to the spotlight Bo Widerberg, one of Sweden's finest filmmakers, best known for the immensely popular 1967 "Elvira Madigan."
Ironically, the two films couldn't be more different apart from their superb craftsmanship and grasp of the individual's often perilous relationship to society. The earlier film was drenchingly romantic with its star-crossed 19th century lovers for whom there was no place in the narrow world in which they existed. What "All Things Fair's" youthful hero, played by Widerberg's son Johan, emerges with is a bracing reality check. You can't resist assuming that Widerberg's title reflects the old observation, "All's fair in love and war."
The time is in fact World War II, when Viola (Marika Lagercrantz), a pretty 30-something teacher, arrives from Stockholm just after Christmas, 1942, in the pleasant city of Malmo to teach in the fine old red brick high school, where Stig (young Widerberg) becomes one of her students. He's a regular guy, preoccupied with sex like his pals, but maybe a little more reflective, a tad more sophisticated, having come from Stockholm himself. The bottom line, of course, is that he is more handsome than all the rest of his classmates, blond and blue-eyed, a classic Scandinavian.
Mutual attraction is immediate and the two are in a passionate embrace with a swiftness that is breathtaking even in today's just-about-anything-goes cinema. A consummate storyteller, Widerberg eschews unnecessary exposition, allowing us to discover the film's meanings as it unfolds. When Viola's husband, Frank (Tomas von Bromssen), appears, we can see why she didn't think twice about betraying him, even though it would be for the first time and it would foolishly, irresponsibly, involve a pupil. Viola had more conventional suitors, but she naively thought Frank, a women's lingerie traveling salesman, no less, would be a breath of fresh air. Now she feels stifled, for Frank not only became a philanderer almost from the start of the marriage but also the only thing he has on his breath nowadays is gin.
Widerberg, whose films include such compelling, socially acute dramas like "Raven's End," "Adalen '31" and "Joe Hill," keeps enlarging, ever so subtly, his perspective in "All Things Fair," confounding expectations in the process. The focus on the reckless, hot and heavy affair--discreetly presented, by the way--of the student and the teacher, who quickly loses her heart, shifts to a flowering friendship between Stig and Frank.
The ordinary-looking Frank is an imaginative eccentric with a passion for classical music that consumes him as much as booze. Stig gets from Frank, who is aware of the affair, the attention he doesn't from his own father, who's preoccupied with his older son, who is in the service. Gradually, we see that Stig's loss of virginity is part of a much larger rite of passage for him--and at a time when the world was engulfed in war. Stig's loss of innocence goes way beyond sex to a comprehension of human nature that allows him to understand that being confronted with life's injustices and hypocrisies goes along with being an adult.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film contains considerable nudity and love-making, although discreetly presented, that rules it out for children.
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'All Things Fair' ('Lust och Fagring Stor')
Johan Widerberg: Stig
Marika Lagercrantz: Viola
Tomas von Bromssen: Frank
Karin Huldt: Lisbet
A Per Holst Film presentation. Writer-director-editor Bo Widerberg. Producer Per Holst. Cinematographer Morten Bruus. Costumes Lotta Petersson. Production designer Palle Arestrup. 2 hours, 8 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Aero Theater, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica (310) 788-6605.