Something Must Break is a nude film. It is about sexuality and gender, profound infatuation and conventionally taboo, even filthy desire. Its characters are often simply, humbly naked in front of an honest but interested camera. They are beautiful and grotesque, typically at the same time. Director Ester Martin Bergsmark has not made a film in order to “rehabilitate” these socially marginal identities and attractions, however. Neither ze nor hir characters is interested in changing the mind of a perhaps unreceptive audience. This isn’t a work of well-meaning, friendly activism. This is a blood- and urine-soaked love story and it is awesome.
It goes like this. Sebastian (Saga Becker) is a waifish bundle of nerves, often terribly shy but occasionally confident with a vengeance. She is also evidently transgender, though Bergsmark and co-writer Eli Léven do not introduce simple labeling into this narrative of transitions. She has taken the name of Ellie, at least on her own, but has not yet told anyone. Instead she lives and works as Sebastian, taking on the world with a bitter resignation and an androgynous wardrobe. For sex she frequents some of the seedier gay cruising locales. She tries to pick up an older man in a public toilet and it backfires. He throws her to the ground, but more beating is stopped by the intervention of a grungy but apparently dashing young man: Andreas (Iggy Malmborg).
Here is the tragic love story, though it doesn’t happen right away. It isn’t until a later meeting, when Sebastian sees Andreas drunkenly urinating in a park, that she builds up the nerve to make the connection. At first, in the manner of many a “doesn’t know he’s gay” romance, there’s plenty of tension leading up to the first sexual experience. Even after that there is miscommunication, shame and embarrassment. It seems as if these two will never feel the same way about each other at the same time.
They have a sexual chemistry, certainly, but also something of an emotional anti-chemistry. It is as if they love past each other, even when on top of each other. Andreas tells Sebastian, “you’re so beautiful I want to vomit.” Often it becomes apparent that they fear each other and what their relationship might mean. Andreas has comparatively less to lose but thinks he has more. It takes time for Sebastian to dare to tell Andreas about her desire to change her name, but she does. Andreas has trouble introducing Sebastian to anyone at all.
All the while, Bergsmark keeps everything glamorous. At one point Andreas lights two cigarettes in his mouth at once, a reference to the glorious romance of Now, Voyager. Even with a great deal of hand-held camera work, breathtaking style shines through. Sexual moments are particularly potent and aesthetically thrilling, from a warm and music-less first orgasm between the two lovers to the various other experiences Sebastian has along the way.
Sebastian is not willing to be entirely hemmed in by her abusive relationship with Andreas. Some of her decisions seem reckless, others empowered, as she goes out into the dark to find company. No one ever seems to actually have sex at night, however. Act after act is bathed in the light of dawn, up until a third-act scene in a sex club set to Peggy Lee’s You’re My Thrill, a particular triumph of composition and mood. And that’s only one track of what is already among the best soundtracks of the year.
In the end, Sebastian is more important, as is her journey to a more comfortable and confident presentation of Ellie to the world. This includes a sense of style, a personality and a sexual and romantic history. Everything in the film, moments ugly and pretty and both at once, are a part of who Ellie was and is. This simple and natural building of self seems to be almost a work of activism, given the on-paper novelty of these characters and Bergsmark’s most taboo images. Yet, as the film seems to say, this is only a revolutionary act if the humanity of people like Ellie is doubted in the first place.
The Upside: With its throbbing soundtrack and dirty glamour, Something Must Break is the sort of confident Nordic transgender narrative we’ve been waiting for.
The Downside: The mannered and admittedly somewhat harsh style of the film can take some getting used to, and the opening voiceover is slightly ponderous.
On the Side: The title is taken from a Joy Division song on Still, the 1981 compilation album of previously unreleased recordings.