A Specter Is Haunting: Jan Gassmann’s "Europe, She Loves"

This paean to romance as a fundamental tenet of survival in the 21st century is receiving its UK premiere on MUBI.
Michael Pattison

MUBI is proud to present the UK premiere of Jan Gassman's new film Europe, She Loves. It will be playing June 19 - July 18, 2016.

“I’m going nowhere faster than a bullet”

— Siobhan, Europe, She Loves

Working and working
So we can be all that we want
Then dancing the drudgery off
But even the drugs have got boring
Well sex is still good when you get it

— Kate Tempest, “Europe Is Lost”

Back in the days when I was a flippant, cerebral, know-it-all virgin, I was once so wise as to remark that relationships are easy and that it’s people who make them difficult. I shot it out like a pebble across water, a dime-a-dozen dictum fashioned after Jean-Pierre Melville in Godard’s À bout de souffle (I never called it Breathless) and designed to confuse a romantic flame into a state of terrified awe. I can’t remember how it went down, but I do remember testing the idea in a relationship years later, by which point the world’s certainties seemed a little more shaky. “That’s bullshit,” my lover replied. “Relationships are so difficult.”

They are. Less than a year later, I was single. I turned the loss inward, embarked upon a manuscript. The novel-that-wasn’t—my energies burned out after 60,000 words of unfathoming fury—was a tell-don’t-show extravaganza of moping confession, of displaced emotional indulgence, of stream-of-consciousness erotica. It was a searching, aching attempt to explain the breakdown of a relationship by fingering nothing less than capitalism itself. There were lengthy quotations from Trotsky.

Europe, She Loves, by Swiss filmmaker Jan Gassmann, is a film after my younger heart. A paean to romance as a fundamental tenet of survival in the 21st century, it views capitalism’s ongoing crisis through the prism of four relationships, acted out on the geographical fringes of Europe: Tallinn, Seville, Dublin, Thessaloniki. Though these heterosexual, twenty-something couples never meet, parallels emerge. Differences from one couple to the next are shaped by the same continent-wide meltdown, from Estonia to Ireland, from Spain to Greece. An early image is of fireworks over a river, the kind of spectacle for which one might join others to see in the New Year. The accompanying sound is a snippet of a politician’s speech: “Since its foundation the European Union has been a promise of peace…”

Not so fast. We know enough to infer irony, not just because the soundbite-as-preface is by now a familiar strategy of thematic exposition, but because we know the EU is a rotten club run by vicious bullies—which is not to say a fairer, more democratic European union is impossible. As things stand, if you join the clan it’ll destroy you; don’t, ditto. Ask the Greeks. Ask Penny and Nicolas (actors aren’t credited with full names), who in Gassmann’s film eke out an essentially tedious existence—she as a waitress, he as a pizza deliveryman. Their bliss is never far from bickery: each silence seems loaded with trouble. Penny, we learn, has resolved to leave, find happiness elsewhere. Behind Nicolas’s kind, patient smile, we sense the ghost of heartache.

Gassmann paints predicaments in shorthand, frames his fictive trajectories against real-world bullet-points. Bodily intimacies are offset by a doom-and-gloom newsfeed that precludes any lasting joy, binding emotions and gestures to an inescapably drab here-and-now. Sex scenes are graphic but lack warmth, characterized by blunt inter-scene cuts. Unavoidable and everywhere, the news-hour fragments timestamp the mood and backdrop much like they did (to more hysterical effects) in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. We learn of a boycott: in February 2012, Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company, the world’s second largest of its kind, announced the closure of two production lines, one of which was in Thessaloniki. (After a 42-day strike, operations resumed.) Later, Penny and Nicolas partake in a protest against rightwing extremism following the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a 34-year-old man better known as the anti-fascist rapper Killah P, who was stabbed to death in Athens by Giorgos Roupakias on 18 September 2013. Roupakias, it quickly emerged, was a member of the neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn.

In Seville, where Karo and Juan live, one radio dispatch addresses unemployment rates: “Never before in Spain have we had so many people out of work. Thousands occupied the streets next to the congress in Madrid to demand radical changes.” Change never comes. Karo hopes to be accepted onto an MA; Juan searches for a job in security. This is a world of side economies and small mercies, of nightshifts and the menial offspring of deindustrialization. There is no workplace chemistry, no unison based upon mutual economic interests. In Tallinn, Veronika is introduced to us as a nightclub dancer, isolated from fellow workers as she performs on her own podium, ogled by potbellied loners who must be escorted away by watchful bouncers. Soon after, we see her at home, nursing a baby; Harri, the boy’s father, has trouble relating to Veronika’s first son from another relationship. We hear that, under present-day pressures, “a child is the biggest problem.”

Europe, She Loves is one of those ensemble films that juxtapose their tableaux with ambient, neo-classical drone music while more vibrant and violent images unfold. Gassmann, directing cinematographer Ramon Giger as well as three different editors, floats between these scenarios as if they’re not so much bad dreams as merely melancholic. Imagery from other European cities, meanwhile, implies other sadnesses, other untold despairs. In spite of this, hope: in Dublin, Siobhan describes to her lover Terry the healing value of being in a relationship amidst social adversity. “When things are stressful,” she says, “it fixes you.” As details of their mutual drug addictions emerge, however, we begin to wonder if their hardship is also the cause of their unhealthy co-dependency. It seems that love, the one thing that might otherwise allow us to conquer a system bound to the cruel demands of profit, is the very thing that the system denies.

That’s as catchy an indictment of capitalism as it is preposterously easy. Indeed, Gassmann’s ideas sometimes feel precooked. When footage of the Costa Concordia’s shipwreck crops up (it ran aground in January 2012), we might ponder the extent to which the writer-director carved his stories out of such ruins like readymade pornographies. Avatars can only take a sincere drama so far. In their first scene together, Siobhan returns from a food bank and tells Terry that she’ll have to throw the meat out because “it’ll go off in one day without a fridge.” When it rains in films, it pours. But then, to criticize such dramatic hyperbole is to dismiss the many thousands of realities from which it borrows. And these are undeniable. In July 2015, the Nevin Economic Research Institute claimed that one in every seven of the Irish population (15.2%) was living on an income below the poverty line. Europe, she starves.

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