BNFF Review: 'The Last Sentence'

The Last Sentence (Dom over död man)
Dir. Jan Troell, Writ. Jan Troell, Klaus Rifbjerg
Starring: Jesper Christensen, Pernilla August, Ulla Skoog, Björn Granath.
“I wish you were the way you write,” says Puste Segerstedt (Ulla Skoog) to her husband, Torgny (Jesper Christensen) in one of the most poignant moments of Jan Troell’s The Last Sentence. The Last Sentence, which screened in Ottawa last night as both the Swedish offering and the closing night film of the Canadian Film Institute’s Bright Nights: Baltic Nordic Film Festival, is an exquisitely shot and artfully neutral biopic about influential Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt. Torgny is a man of conviction and passion when he wields a pen and commands a typewriter, but he’s a cold and distant man when it comes to close personal relationships. The Last Sentence interrogates how a man can have such a gap between his public and personal personas, and ultimately challenges the audience to ponder the words of the famed writer. Does powerful rhetoric hold sway when the speaker himself is not a man of action?

Torgny’s coldness to Puste might come as a surprise, for The Last Sentence presents him as a man of great conviction from the outset. Alongside his husband and wife newspaper peers Axel (Björn Granath) and Maja (Pernilla August), Torgny scripts a powerful, strongly worded letter that condemns Hitler and everything he represents. The editorial sparks and flurry of outrage, but as the war in Europe escalates and Sweden refuses to take stand for or against Nazism, Torgny becomes passionately critical of neutrality and writes against that inaction is just as bad as the deeds performed by Hitler himself.

Torgny’s own life, however, is rendered cold and listless thanks to his apathetic relationship with Puste and the third party in their love triangle, Maja. It seems that Torgny exhausts his passion in his words and opts not to take a side when it comes to choosing a partner. He never says “I love you” to any of the women in his life and he cripples them with his own neutrality and inaction by leaving them both stranded. The only love he seems capable of expressing is his fondness for his three dogs. (The trio of pooches are a delight, so one can see why.)

The editor’s inner conflict, for he seems acutely aware of the problems around him, manifests itself in some striking doses of haunting magical realism that Troell injects by having ghosts from Torgny’s past visit him like the three spirits that haunt Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.  The principal ghost is his mother, who died when Torgny was eight, and more visitors appear as history progresses and Torgny’s cold way with women claims more victims. Other memories fade in and out of the film as Torgny loses his grasp on both his private life and his public authority. These episodes enliven what is often a stiff and reserved film experience, since the subject himself is so aloof to feeling.

Christensen does a remarkable job playing Torgny Segerstedt with an austere and detached coldness. One can see that this is a man of great intelligence—both the character and the actor—and the masterfully subdued performance invites the audience to watch this brilliant mind from a distance and witness the evolution of a man who stands for everything and nothing. Equally fine are the two women in Torgny’s life, played by August and Skoog, the latter of which is particularly effective in her touching portrayal of a woman rendered broken by years of loveless marriage. Skoog’s performance of a love song to Torgny as her husband sits with his mistress (who actually requests that Puste perform for the partying crowd) is a heartbreaking plea, especially with how subtly Troell juxtaposes the love and coldness in the marriage in a shot/reverse shot exchange between singer and recipient. Torgny couldn’t look more bored or disinterested during the serenade while Puste couldn’t pour her heart out any more plainly.

The Last Sentence is marked by a certain vulgarity Torgny seems to have for public displays of affection. A second party, his birthday, features a bizarre, almost Fellini-esque sequence in which he is crowned and made to ride a papier-mâché horse and wield a giant pen. The pen isn’t mightier than the sword, this fête seems to say, for Torgny’s toxic coldness has now infected Maja, who bursts into a peculiar rendition of “God Save the King” as her beau rides the funny stallion amidst a chorus of toasts saying “Happy Birthday.”

Torgny is an interesting and often heroic man for his crusades against Nazism and for his stand for the freedom of the press, but Troell presents a thought-provoking portrait of a conflicted man that is sure to leave the audience feeling the man’s mix of cold intellectualism (The film’s overdrawn length also risks leaving one indifferent to Torgny’s inaction.) The Last Sentence is a skilfully striking film from an aesthetic point of view, though, as the luminous black and white cinematography captures the writer’s warped outlook, as he sees everything as a black and white binary and often misses the full spectrum with his uncompromising worldviews. The Last Sentence has hints of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and overtones of Haneke’s The White Ribbon with both its elliptical slippages into the subconscious and its coolly metaphorical take on history. It’s an admirable film that plays much like the man it portrays: cool and detached, but not without purpose.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Last Sentence screened in Ottawa at the Bright Nights Film Festival on February 12.

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