Disturbing Swedish drama “Granny’s Dancing On The Table,” from writer-helmer Hanna Skold, uses live action and stop-motion animation with voiceover narration to trace familial dysfunction and abuse through several generations. The live-action sequences follow a 13-year-old girl (Blanca Engstrom) on the cusp of puberty living with her controlling, religious zealot father (Lennart Jahkel), isolated from society. The claymation and puppet animation segments chronicle episodes from the lives of the girl’s forebears, women so maltreated by men that they go mad or run away. End result is both off-putting (the live action) and engrossing (the animation) and marks Skold as an idiosyncratic talent.
Dramas about dysfunctional families are about as typically Swedish as drinking glogg, but Skold provides a fresh twist with her rather primitive looking animated characters, whose story unfolds like a fairy tale. Just as Todd Haynes accomplished in his early-career Barbie-based biopic “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” one becomes so caught up in the misery unfolding in their lives that it is easy to project true feeling onto their blank faces and reel with shock when they are ill-used.
The live action kicks off in the present day, the strong visuals resembling a cross between a horror film and something by helmer Andrei Tarkovsky. Eini (Blanca Engstrom), an unkempt teen with a bloody nose, sits at a table in a ramshackle house in the middle of the forest, reading letters from a tin box. Her eerie voiceover states, “Daddy and I … We hid out in the forest, far away from all the other people, because the world is a very dangerous place. And I am a very dangerous person. But everything actually started a long, long time ago.”
In that parallel animated narrative about long ago, Eini describes how her granny and granny’s twin sister Lucia, homeless orphans, arrive in a remote part of Sweden where they do physical labor for a shy farmer with a maniacal attachment to peace and quiet. Although Lucia marries the farmer, it is granny who falls pregnant with a little boy. The farmer decides that it would be more proper if he and Lucia claim the boy as their own and Granny is dispatched to foreign parts where it is never clear whether she is making her living as a sought-after entertainer or courtesan. Meanwhile, the farmer starts to brutalize both Lucia and the baby (who will grow up to be Eini’s father). Eventually, we also learn about Eini’s mother and the return of granny to the farm.
The stories in the animated parts of the film were drawn from tales contributed by the film’s Kickstarter supporters about their own grannies and brought together into the story of one character. Perhaps this explains why Eini’s Granny seems to be living many vastly different lives. Likewise, the live-action section is stronger on mood and menace than narrative detail.
While the pale and pasty Engstrom and Jahkel are effectively creepy as the rebellious daughter and dictatorial father, what lingers in the mind are the haunting location visuals captured by Ita Zbroniec Zait (“Underdog”), made infinitely more disturbing by Giorgio Giampa’s ominous score and Thomas Jaeger and Kristoffer Salting’s striking sound design.
The knees-up conjured by the title actually happens under the closing credits, although the lightness of mood it suggests seems incongruous with the main body of the film.
Film Review: 'Granny's Dancing On The Table'
Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 11, 2015. (Also in San Sebastian Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 85 MIN.
(Sweden) A Nordic Factory production with the support of the Swedish Film Institute, Kulturbryggan, MEDIA, Kulturkontakt Nord, Film i Skane, Film i Dalarna, BoostHbg, Filmcentrum Skane, Kickstarter. (International sales: Nordic Factory, Copenhagen.) Produced by Helene Granqvist. Co-producer, Valeria Richter.
Directed, written by Hanna Skold. Camera (color, HD), Ita Zbroniec Zait; editor, Patrik Forsell; music, Giorgio Giampa; production designers, Erika von Weissenberg, Asa Lieberath; costume designer, Lieberath; animators, Daniel Svensson, Skold; sound, Thomas Jaeger, Kristoffer Salting; associate producer, Klara Bjork.
Blanca Engstrom, Lennart Jahkel. (Swedish, English dialogue)