The chubby hand of a Thai infant clutches a cellphone into which her prostitute mom sings a lullaby during a break from work. Such images from the modern world cut to the heart of this fascinating, multiply-perspectived look at children, how we try to nurture and protect them, and how these attempts can go terribly wrong.
The century's first decade brought a small trend in movies that linked ostensibly unrelated people in a patchwork of intersecting lives and coincidence (e.g., Babel, Traffic, Crash, Amores Perros). But Moodysson weaves a different web-of-life theme, focusing less on synchronicity, more on interpersonal distance--of mothers from children, husbands from wives, wealth from poverty, our immersion in technology versus a yearning for the natural world.
Mammoth's story spins around Leo, a wealthy Web game designer; his wife, Ellen, an ER surgeon; 7-year-old daughter Jackie; and her nanny, Gloria, who sends her salary home to 2 children in the Philippines. These SoHo dwellers live in a house brimming with material wealth--a fridge overflowing with food, though mom can't do more than slice an apple, a child's room oozing FAO Schwartz--yet the only truly comforting place appears to be a gigantic pillow on which the family plays in the rare moments when all three are together in one place.
Moodysson deftly tacks between NYC, the Philippines, and Thailand, where Leo travels to ink a deal on a new Website, while struggling to enjoy Bangkok's charms. His psychic tension mirrors that of the other characters, who can't seem to derive pleasure from their current surroundings, however superficially copacetic they may be.
Within this global context, the director puts forth a thoroughly unsurprising notion: that despite all that contemporary life enables, children still need their mothers. (The word mammoth itself is connected to the concept of "mother" in Swedish.) Yet 21st-century matriarchs are inextricably tied to economic factors, and thus, children are sometimes left in the hands of other caretakers, who may or may not be up to the task. Not lost on Moodysson is the irony of a world in which mothers must leave their children to go mother others' children for pay.
We learn little backstory on the film's central male character, Leo. It's a well-acted but fairly low-key role for Gael Garcia Bernal, who through much of the movie wears two wristwatches--one set for NY, one for Thailand, though his role in both places feels tenuous. As he's entrenched in an online gaming fortune, his sense of play is flagging, and while the natural world holds some appeal, as it does for the English in E.M. Forster novels, he's perhaps too far gone to fully embrace it. While the elephant Leo spots on the roadside appears to have something to teach him, the closest he gets to this primitive energy is a $3,000 fountain pen made of ivory from a frozen mammoth, with which he signs a $45 million contract. Meeting a young sex worker awakens Leo's protective impulses. However, his own fantasies ultimately trump his ability to give her anything of value.
Michelle Williams plays Leo's wife, Ellen, a physician who works long hours to save children's lives, yet despite her best intentions, struggles to connect with her own daughter. Her work has taken her to the edge of emotional burnout, yet she can't find her own form of nurturance. As the film opens, a badly wounded young patient forces her to question maternal instincts overall.
The film aches with all of its human-made chasms, and it's easy to relate to the irony of a world more closely "connected" than ever, yet so often falling flat in matters of the heart. Through their ubiquitous cellphones, these characters seem to be shouting into the void, while lives hanging in the balance are compromised and even lost.
Given the contemporary world's great challenges to intimacy, Moodysson appears to hold out little hope for our future (as even the film's title suggests). At movie's end, two exhausted characters want to do better but remain trapped on a wheel built of money, overwork, disconnection, and an inability to restructure lives and priorities.
I was surprised to see how many mediocre reviews Mammoth received and to hear that it was even booed at the Berlin International Film Festival. Moodysson is a talented director working at a deep emotional level, which is apparently too subtle for the American Netflix crowd. I greatly enjoyed his 2000 film Together, about a group of Leftist Swedish commune dwellers during the 1970s. But this is a more fascinating, more layered film, which raises many questions for the mothers and children of our modern world.