Cathy Brennan was a participant on this year's Film Critics Day workshop at the Cinema Rediscovered film festival in Bristol and Clevedon in the U.K., a celebration of the finest new digital restorations, contemporary classics and film print rarities from across the globe. Further examples of the writing from the workshop, as well as information about the program, can be found on the Cinema Rediscovered Blog
‘A film like this could never be made in my country.’ This is what I thought when the lights came up after Cinema Rediscovered’s screening of Something Must Break (2014). A Swedish film, it tells the story of a young trans woman named Ellie (Saga Becker) who falls in love with a cis man named Andreas (Iggy Malmborg). Writer-director Ester Martin Bergsmark created a potent film about transgender sexuality, and how it rubs up against the virulent transmisogyny of society. For the first time, I saw the subtle nuances of my own life and desires explicitly reflected on film. I suspect that may be the same for other trans women, like me, stuck in dead-end jobs, unable to afford transition, and used by a cis-normative society that projects its most private fantasies onto our bodies, yet still refuses to see us as fully human. A film like this could not be made in a country like the U.K.
Compared to the majestic looking Maurice (1987), which also screened at Cinema Rediscovered this year, Something Must Break weaves beauty into the unsightly to tell its queer love story. In one potent example, Ellie takes Andreas skinny-dipping in a secluded pond. The soundtrack is serene as the two young leads frolic in the water, their bodies illuminated by the warm glow of the sun. This light, the water, and the vegetation of the forest project an image of natural beauty which, in itself, is associated with the generative. At the same time, these picturesque details share space with garbage strewn in the background; a drain pipe at the edge of the pond connotes waste. The binary between the beautiful and the ugly comes to symbolize a tension between heteronormative fantasy and queer reality. The beauty of nature is perceived as such because it is life-giving, whereas the ugliness of piss, vomit and garbage lies in its degenerate wastefulness.
The dichotomy between straight beauty and queer ugliness is a product of heteronormative society, and so to accept it uncritically is to give in to such a worldview. Rather, Something Must Break examines how this oppressive binary shapes Ellie’s sexuality as a young trans woman. At the beginning of the film she still goes by her deadname, while Ellie herself is confined to internal monologue. She exists to cis patriarchy as both man and woman: she can be fucked like a woman when wanted and beaten like a man when unwanted. We get a glimpse of Ellie’s initial acceptance of this social contract early on when she says “Piss in my mouth if it’ll make you love me.” This informs her dependence on Andreas, even when he says, “What the fuck are you?”
Ultimately, to men like Andreas, Ellie is nothing more than an exotic object to be picked up and discarded at will. I know what it is to be this object, or that “experience” to both cis men and women. There is an all-too familiar scene in a restaurant toilet when Andreas’ friend Mattias (Mattias Åhlén), corners Ellie, and tells her, unwarranted, “I think it’s really cool that you dare to be yourself. It’s brave. I just want you to know that.” Having been told those very words by people I consider good friends, I can assure the reader that being told that your transness is brave has never not felt Othering. On the surface, Mattias’ words may seem like an attempt to reach out, but the implicit message is, “I know that I am better than you.” This is demonstrated by him immediately switching the topic to intrusive questions about Ellie’s sex life. Mattias’ chumminess has a degree of threat to it; he invades Ellie’s personal space and strokes her hair. In an earlier scene, we witness a man beating Ellie in another public toilet, but, somehow, this quieter moment with Mattias is more devastating, because it conveys how transmisogyny is so deeply woven into the fabric of our everyday social interactions.
As the film progresses, Ellie becomes more comfortable in her identity as a trans woman, and thus her confidence grows. This ultimately manifests in the party scene, which ranks among the most cathartic pieces of film this trans woman has ever seen. She watches Andreas perform Fading Like a Flower on the karaoke machine. He grinds against Mattias in that no-homo way cishet men do. Ellie, fed up with the role she has to play in a world built for men like Andreas and Mattias, bottles the latter and storms out, never to see them again. The film ends with Ellie sitting barefoot atop a hill, gazing at the cityscape she must live in and endure. A woman walking her dog approaches and compliments Ellie on her dress, saying, “It suits you.” Compared to the insincere, loaded compliments that men have given her throughout the film, the simplicity of these words ring true.
This older friend then joins Ellie in staring at the view and says, “All this we’re standing on is made of waste. We’re standing on a pile of rubbish.” The woman leaves Ellie to her thoughts, as the rising sun illuminates our young heroine's face. It marks an inversion of the dichotomy between beautiful nature, and ugly garbage. Nature is not cis or heterosexual, while transness and queerness are not themselves a waste. It can be hard to exist as a trans woman in this world, yet, despite the difficulties, there can be beauty in our lives. We must make it for ourselves, and in that respect, Something Must Break is a superlative creation.