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Brighton Festival: Hugo & Josephine

Monday 19 May 2014
Words Darren Skene

As the centre of town ran over with festivalgoers and sunlounging weekenders, a good crowd gathered around the Duke’s last Saturday lunchtime, queueing to make their own great escape. And if you’re reading this and wondering who on earth would choose a darkened cinema over milling around in a bright coastal breeze, then you’ve probably never seen Hugo and Josephine, which is a movie with plenty of idyllic sunlight to spare.

Made in 1967 by first-time director Kjell Grede, Hugo and Josephine applies techniques of the various New Waves of the time to a rural Swedish setting, in which the young and solitary Josephine stretches her imagination to its limit in her parents’ impressive yet somewhat vacant country house and grounds. From the credit sequence onward – daubings in blue and yellow watercolour, a score of jaunty brass and reeds – the audience is primed for magic, pleasure, innocence, vicarious excitement. Yet Grede also plunges us directly into Josephine’s trials and encounters: an apparently dangerous stream, a sour-faced old woman, the teasing of her classmates. Her father is a preacher who remains offscreen, rebuffing her attempts to communicate with him through his study window as he endlessly prepares sermons. Her mother is visible to us but not much less remote. The yellow-sunlit environment is not enough for Josephine. She needs a playmate.

At this point, two new people enter her life: a rough, heavy-set gardener named Gudmarson and his young friend Hugo, a boy about Josephine’s age who shuns the schoolhouse in favour of his own woodland hijinks and earthy fact-finding. She quickly becomes enamoured and fascinated by the pair of them; there is a dynamic between them that broaches the generation gap in ways she’s clearly never experienced. Josephine determines that Hugo must be the playmate she desires.

All the children from the area study in one schoolhouse. As a symbolic space – a testing ground for the collective strength or individual alienation of an entire community’s children – it recalls such recent significant films as The White Ribbon and Bal. In the playground, Grede stages recurring variations of the game of Grandma’s Footsteps. First it is played in a recognisable way, then later it returns in isolated or unaccountable fragments, seguing into the next scene with floating, disembodied dialogue and elliptical editing (a style reminiscent of the contemporary Eastern European New Wave, yet certainly not too derivative of it). Grandma’s Footsteps (in its Swedish translation the children shout “Petrified!”) is Grede’s way of showing Josephine isolated from her peer group, with everyone else frozen before her. There’s a suggestion on her face that she’s somehow not really playing the game; she’s undermining her role in it, with her mind on other matters. When she smiles, we feel she’s smiling at something that isn’t present.

For much of the film I suspected that Hugo in fact must be a figment of Josephine’s imagination. To its credit, and very much serving the magical, unreal tonal haze of the film, it never differentiates between tall tales and verifiable truth. This is part of its charm – creating a narrative environment in which certain unlikely things happen only because they apparently must, and other equally unlikely things happen simply because they can. If Hugo can steal and ride a penny-farthing bicycle that’s visibly too large for him to mount, why couldn’t he outrun a horse or a bull, as Josephine insists to her mother he can?

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There is a persistent sense of mystery about all these characters, a kind of magnetism between them that refuses to put itself into words, whether they’re leads or merely background players. Their scope and import, or what they might signify, is left inscrutably open-ended, as if we’re looking back on Josephine’s memories and able to pick out only faces and settings. There are no functional, logical backstories to these people, only their images: the two wrinkled factory workers who penetrate Josephine’s dreams; the elderly villagers who come out to the road, bemused and proud as little Hugo flies past on his stolen bicycle. All we know of the old man who regularly employs Hugo as his barber is that he has built for himself a huge and impressive potato-peeling machine. As Hugo cuts the old man’s hair, Josephine picks around in his barn, playing with stray potatoes. Everything in Hugo and Josephine feels like it could in time become a remote and apocryphal folk myth, like something from a Günter Grass novel.

In a film consisting largely of gentle peculiarities, Kjell Grede’s boldest statement is to present Josephine’s parents as near-total absences. In many conventional narratives, absences are apertures in the story’s surface, gaps we can question and claw at with the hope of exposing something significant – perhaps even a storyteller’s weakness. An absence is an open question. If somebody is left out, as Josephine’s parents are (we see only her father’s robes as she mimics his preaching), questions are raised: Where are they? What are they doing? In the case of Hugo and Josephine, her parents’ non-participation in this rural fantasy doesn’t open a question, it only offers a blunt answer, a full stop: They are nowhere. They are doing nothing. It strikes an odd note, a not-so-gentle peculiarity of the film that I can’t easily resolve.

Many stories about children will feature to a larger or smaller extent the theme of ‘playing at grown-ups’. In Hugo and Josephine, the film’s final scene raises this theme to a fantastical, complexly unreal dimension: an arrangement of homely things in any place can temporarily be a home; grown-ups are playing at grown-ups, while perhaps, they are nothing but children who have come untethered from their providers. Hugo himself is presented as sage, witty and self-sufficient, and so his reliance on Gudmarson the gardener feels reciprocal – are they in fact forest-bound peers who know they will never be accepted or subsumed into a limited role?

Josephine, for her part, is nothing but loyal, loving and fascinated by these figures whose characteristics and abilities may still be to some extent imaginary. She is utterly thrilled by Hugo in every way, and the audience shares this thrill – it’s fostered by the film’s consistently bright air of benevolence and magic. What develops between Josephine and Hugo is really a genuine romance, yet without any of the ‘adult’ trappings of the term. To deny this would be to inappropriately impose our own ‘adult’ distinctions upon story that simply doesn’t require them.

So far, the Cinema of Childhood strand has given us an insight into the kind of images that strike its curator Mark Cousins as especially authentic and giving. I’m thinking of Joey in Little Fugitive struggling to hold a steady stance with an unwieldy bat as the pitching machine mercilessly lobs baseballs in his direction, and of Hugo and Josephine running across freshly tilled fields with two enormous swaying sunflowers they’ve uprooted. This is the tenacity of children, struggling (and perhaps mastering) these things that tower over them or weigh them down. The struggle is enjoyable, playful, unselfconsciously optimistic.

While some viewers may find its joys rather oblique, there are moments in Hugo and Josephine capable of winning over anyone: there’s almost nothing in this world funnier and warmer than a little girl laughing hysterically as she tries to eat a whole boiled egg in one daring gulp. Hats off to Mark Cousins, Kjell Grede and of course little Marie Öhman for providing a wizened old cynic like me with a laugh so entirely free of irony: a rare and heartening feeling.

Words: Dave Hamilton-Smith