Fantasy Reviews: Mamma Mia! as directed by Michael HanekeIn Mamma Mia! Michael Haneke gives us his grimmest unblinkingly bleak dissection of the human condition yet. Meryl Streep (Silkwood, Ironweed) performs her most blisteringly tragic role since Sophie's Choice, with which she creates a dramatic throughline, again playing a woman haunted by the decisions of her past, this time the mother of a character named Sophie.
Always the maverick, Haneke breaks new ground by having the characters shatter the realism of the mise en scène by expressing their thoughts suddenly in the songs of an obscure, darkly contemplative Scandinavian band, ABBA (whose name perversely describes a rhyming scheme their sinister lyrics never employ). The effect of these random bursts into song is his most shocking arresting device since the "rewind" scene from Funny Games (both the German and U.S., as well as the unreleased Japanese animé version). The inexplicable transitions into song, with often surreally sourceless musical accompaniment, form a polemic against American cinema's disempowerment of the spectator by providing more answers than questions, and upends the viewers expectations of a Haneke film by sidestepping his usual formal use of silence.
The plot concerns a young bride-to-be, Amanda Seyfried (Mean Girls) trying to discover her true parentage. Haneke is playing with issues of identity, squarely honing in on the post-feminist struggle of a woman against a culture that insists she define herself in terms of men, her unknown father and her soon to be husband. The ghosts in Streep's past are Pierce Brosnan (Nomads, The Long Good Friday), Colin Firth (Trauma) and Stellan Skarsgård (Breaking the Waves), playing multiple nationalities and members of male dominated professions, they are really just portraying facets of a single male archetype, domineering and global.
There are some missteps. Haneke draws us briefly away from the grueling emotional tension to deconstruct the fall from grace of capitalism ("Money, Money, Money"), and throws in some overwrought metaphors conflating the battle of the sexes and the horrors of war ("Fernando", "Waterloo"). Dominic Cooper (From Hell), Julie Walters (G.B.H.) and Christine Baranski (Reversal of Fortune, Cruel Intentions), who round out the cast are cruelly underused, perhaps intentionally, as meaningless ciphers. Whilst Haneke's motives are semiotically unfathomable, it is possible that we are being provoked to establish a Brechtian emotional distance from the characters. These flaws do not dim this staggering achievement.
In one masterstroke, with the song "SOS", Haneke is telling us that by driving to our multiplex, buying not just tickets, but family fun pack refreshments, with extra big gulp, yard of slushee, large popcorn and plastic tray of nachos with a compartment of scalding microwaved processed jalapeño cheese food, and by sitting in designated seats, perhaps encroaching on the personal space of the seat next to us by using the arm rest reservoir for our soda pop, whilst we balance the nachos between us, by participating in this earth resource draining consumerist charade, we are implicitly culpable for the grotesque spectacle of Pierce Brosnan's singing. We are complicit and responsible for every jarring flat semiquaver as it thuds against our ear drums, as Haneke makes clear to us by rigidly keeping the sound level from dipping and by not sparing us one moment of horror, cutting away or processing it through autotune. For if we are not there to hear it, he would not need to film it in the first place. Just as Haneke used the unflinching audio of the offscreen murder in Benny's Video to harrowing effect, he reminds us that in a cold uncaring universe, our own cries of SOS will go unheeded.
It is particularly telling how Haneke uses one of the most recognizable dirges, "Knowing Me, Knowing You", played instrumentally as the couple walk down the aisle. Pitting this denunciation of the delusion of understanding between clearly unknowable minds, against the societal conventions promoting this illusory union, creates a damning reevaluation of the institution of marriage. That Haneke deftly weaves this into a tableau of skin deep glamour and taffeta, makes the viewer's inescapable realization of the shallow futility of all human interaction at once poignant and searingly painful.
Given the "emo" cult of the music, this will no doubt make the film a draw for teenagers. Here, I feel, the BBFC have criminally rated this film a liberal PG, permissively ignoring the effect of such traumatic material, clearly inducing suicidal thoughts, in that impressionable age. For youth, having the hope of life ahead of them surgically removed, as this film does coldly and clinically, there may be no other way past the pain and misery that Mamma Mia! evokes. Parents, lest that be the last cry you hear from your wounded child, ban them from this film! Just tell them to say "No Thank You to the Music".
In the end, a nearly unwatchable, though masochistically compelling, pitiless excursion into brutal nihilism.
And the tunes are catchy.
[Author's Note: This is another piece that I wrote as a potential entry for the New Forest Film Critic of the Year 2011 Competition, but which I decided was too fanciful for the competition. Also, although I was able to knock my short listed entry (Review: The Brothers Bloom: The Sum of Its Parts) down from about 900 words to the competition limit 500, the verbose pseudo-intellectualese used in this piece denied much trimming from its first draft and even grew a bit as I finished it off for inclusion here. Not being as tight, I hope it doesn't overstay its welcome.]