Johan Kling’s dazzling 2007 debut feature Darling seems not to have a high profile on the festival circuit. After a Swedish theatrical run and an appearance at the Cannes market, it had its international premiere at San Sebastian, with additional stops at respected events like Pusan and Istanbul. That’s not chopped liver as far as international exposure goes, but also not an itinerary guaranteed to catch the attention of the critic community.
Maybe Darling is a little too commercial to make a big festival splash. But Kling is commercial in the way that Lubitsch, Deville or Mike Leigh could be called commercial: he gives audiences pleasure, his control of pace and rhythm is exceptional, he’s a natural at comedy and knows how to use music for narrative propulsion. I can imagine him having an international hit, but audiences would have to enjoy him on his own quirky terms.
Darling traces two diametrically opposed lives that we suspect will eventually converge. Eva (Michelle Meadows) is a sullen, stupid, beautiful rich girl with an equally vapid boyfriend and social crowd. When a young Don Juan (Michael Lindgren) decides to make her a notch on his bedpost, her hilarious lack of emotive range gives her the edge in the subsequent power struggle, but also makes her unable to gauge the social consequences. Somewhere else in Stockholm, a 61-year-old divorced man (Michael Segerström) remains doggedly positive despite his solitude and declining financial prospects. Though he is a born victim, and a bit maddening in his labored speech patterns, his essential contentment seems to be genuine.
Like Mike Leigh, writer-director Kling keys his comedy to the stylized absurdity of his actors. But there is something unique about the way Kling fuses performance and rhythm. Using camera movement and music to lay an exaggerated, comic emphasis at the end of each fleeting scene, Kling dares us to look for the mystery in the tangled opacity of banal lives. It’s difficult to see where the story might go in the film’s first half – and the narrative suspense that Kling generates by staring so intently at so many expressionless faces gradually turns his mundane characters into icons of inscrutability.
When a plot finally takes shape, it’s predicated on an almost Chaplinesque pathos: perhaps another reason to regard Kling as a commercial director. And yet the pathos is strictly subordinated to a harsh sense of class determinism, and finds expression only in small, ineffective gestures. The mismatched parallel plot threads come together only briefly and decouple at the first whisper of social necessity. Still, Kling’s ability to balance character revelation and character concealment makes it possible for him to remain true to harsh social realities and yet still suggest that an ineffable something has moved in the clouded currents of his people’s inner lives.