At last, a proper love story! Romance, in most recent mainstream movies, has been reduced to just another consumer durable: “If only I had the right shoes / clothes / lover I’d be happy”. Love is played out to that summer’s soundtrack, in the very latest fashions, and every woman has a gay best friend.
As opposed to, say, a dead one.
Yes, Let The Right One In is technically a horror film. And yes, I don’t much like horror films. I had a meeting with a producer the other day in which were discussing the best up and coming directors, and I realised, slightly shamefully, that I’d seen hardly any of their work, because their break-out pictures had been horror. But Let The Right One In isn’t really horror, it’s a romance: a romance between two lonely, troubled people who find each other, need each other, grow to love each other. And if one of them’s a vampire? Well, as Billy Wilder taught us in Some Like It Hot, nobody’s perfect.
We’re in Blackeberg, a suburb of Stockholm, in 1982 (I had to look up the precise date, because I’ve been to Blackeberg and it’s not that different now), and Oskar is unhappy. He’s 12, he’s bullied at school, and he’s the only man in the village who doesn’t much like to pee in the snow. He’s also introverted, bookish, cuts out news reports of murder and likes to play with knives: a high school massacre waiting to happen (isn’t that a Disney film?). And then he meets Eli. She’s dark-eyed, skinny and soulful, and can crack the Rubik’s cube in an evening: what’s not to like?
There is her habit of ripping the throats out of the locals, but that’s not immediately apparent, because Let The Right One In is the best film about the practicalities of vampirism that I’ve seen since the magnificent Near Dark. Eli doesn’t want to cause trouble. She really just wants to belong. With Oskar she’s polite, considerate and honest; she holds his hand tenderly, leaves him notes in her sweet curly writing, and when he asks how old she is, replies, completely deadpan: “Twelve. But I’ve been twelve for a very long time”. But she can’t stand sunlight, can’t eat normal food and needs a regular blood supply; and when her usual system breaks down she soon finds herself at society’s mercy, a persecuted misfit just like Oskar. As the bullies escalate their torment, and the community becomes suspicious of Eli, will their love be their salvation or their fall?
Despite flashes of appalling violence (cat lovers, beware) Let The Right One In is mostly quiet, sly and stealthy, its story unfolding in the corners, not the centre of the screen. Its images are spare and simple, demanding your attention not dazzling with technique. Director Tomas Alfredson finds a sullen, awkward beauty in the peeling walls and plastic chairs of Blackeberg, and in the ageing, pockmarked faces of its people. There are no casual deaths in this movie, and no-one dies unmourned.
And that, perhaps, is its secret. Every genre, these days, is ironic, every movie self-aware. They arrive on screen with attitude, whether it’s self-mockery (Duplicity) or self-importance (The Reader), conscious of their status, of the job they’re here to do. Let The Right One In is different: like Orphee or Pan’s Labyrinth it’s a fantasy movie that’s completely sincere. Love, for Eli and Oskar, isn’t simple. It’s tricky, twisted, complicated, but it’s real and it matters; and by the witty, shocking ending it matters to us too.