Episode #63 of The Swampflix Podcast: ABBA Does Australia & The Dressmaker (2016)

Welcome to Episode #63 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-third episode, Brandon & Britnee investigate Australia’s unrivaled, unexplainable love for the Swedish pop group ABBA, discussing three films that reflect that national obsession. Brandon also makes Britnee watch the Australian revenge tale The Dressmaker (2016) for the first time. Enjoy!

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– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Souvenir (2018)

In Souvenir, Isabelle Huppert boinks someone a third her age and looks damn good doing it. It’s a story we’ve seen told onscreen so many times before that it could be its own genre. Still, I’m not sure it’s ever been this delightfully, delicately sweet. There are shots in Souvenir of Huppert reading on a bus & eye-fucking a young man that look like they were airlifted specifically from 2016’s somber, philosophy-minded Things to Come, but its overall tone is much closer to the tipsy glamour of a Muriel’s Wedding, complete with extensive references to ABBA. Souvenir is a delicately surreal comedy. Decades ago, it would have been referred to as “a woman’s picture.” As such, I suspect it’s unlikely to be as well-respected within the Isabelle Huppert Boinking Younger Men canon as films that strive to be Serious Art, but it’s covertly one of the best specimens of its ilk.

Huppert stars as a pâté factory worker (does it get more French than that?) with a limelit past she’d rather not be discovered. She’s drawn out of hiding when a young coworker/amateur boxer catches her eye with a sweetly innocent line of flirtation. Her young beau may be a loser who lives at home with his parents, but he has a kind of dopey charm & a fearless enthusiasm she cannot resist. He also inflates her own ego, recognizing her from her forgotten past as a finalist in the European Song Contest three decades ago (where she lost to ABBA, no shame in that). She’s terrified by his pleas to relaunch her career, but the excitement of pleasing him overpowers her desire to fade into her drab, solitary work & home life. The stakes of revitalizing her vintage career as a pop singer while initiating a love story with a (much) younger man are low, but painful: televised embarrassments, being stood up for diner, hearing herself described as “like ABBA, but not so famous,” etc. As thematically slight as the dual romance & pop star career revival stories might come across, though, the movie is never short of lovely.

Where Souvenir might feel slight in its narrative, it excels in its candy-coated imagery. The film opens in a bath of CG champagne bubbles and emerges into a freshly manicured, absurdly symmetrical world of bright colors & vintage pop music. Even Huppert’s factory job looks like a delicious dream, including countless primly-staged, bird’s-eye-view shots of pâté that should wear you down, but hypnotize instead. I was struck by the Old Hollywood glamour of certain scenes as well, typified by Huppert’s multiple (!) musical numbers & the rear projection shots of our mismatched couple’s steamy motorcycle rides. Souvenir is an inexpensive, lowkey delight, but looks far more appetizing than many films 10x its budget.

While Huppert Boinking Young’ns is almost enough of a repeated story pattern to be its own genre, the European Song Contest indie comedy is a well-established genre with a long tradition of recognizable tropes & narrative beats. Souvenir has a familiar skeleton, but its sugary exterior makes it an exceptional specimen. First off, Huppert looks incredible. Her first appearance is in the glamour photo lighting of a makeup mirror and it never diminishes form there; the camera loves her. It’s nice to see that quality applied to irreverent humor & playful eroticism for once, instead of the pitch-black descents into ennui & cruelty Huppert is usually cast in. Her gracefully unenthused dance moves, nonchalant pop music vocals, and fierce but delicate sexual humor elevate every frame she touches to the point where a movie that should be pedestrian is instead a kind of wonder. Souvenir is not the type of Huppert Boinking Youngsters picture that tends to score high critical marks or Best of The Year accolades, just like how the similarly femme irreverence of The Dressmaker is not the kind of Western that earns that kind of attention. It’s a gorgeous object & a glamorous heart-warmer, though, a subtly impressive, candy-coated dream.

-Brandon Ledet

ABBA: The Movie (1977)

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In our recent conversation about the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music, I asked Britnee if it’s possible to make a legitimately-great disco musical or if the two genres were fundamentally irreconcilable. Britnee answered with a resounding “Yes!” but I remained somewhat unconvinced. The repetition inherent to disco makes a musical film’s plot feel like its idling in a way that a more narrative-intense music genre wouldn’t. Can’t Stop the Music’s musical numbers were strange Village People music video-type interjections that barely interacted with the film’s completely unnecessary plot involving Steve Guttenberg’s DJ career and some out-of-place heterosexual shenanigans. The movie’s disco & plot mixed just about as cohesively as oil & water.

ABBA: The Musical brilliantly sidesteps the problem by not even attempting to mix its plot with its disco. The movie does tell a half-assed story of about country music DJ assigned to interview the Swedish pop group on their Australian tour, but it’s entirely inconsequential. Early conversations between the DJ and his station manager are periodically interrupted with crowds chanting “We want ABBA!”, voicing exactly what the audience is thinking. The movie delivers the goods early on, full live performances of the band’s hit songs running almost continuously from about ten minutes in. ABBA: The Musical is essentially a concert film in disguise, the Australian DJ’s story arc serving mostly as filler. Between the live performances, he conducts street interviews with fans, reads about the group member’s individual personalities in magazines, and struggles to make his way backstage at their concerts. Where Can’t Stop the Music made the band it was marketing second to its superficial plot, ABBA: The Movie is smart to do the exact opposite, always putting the band first & the fiction second.

Honestly, Can’t Stop the Music is a much more interesting film (especially in its choice to obscure both its subject’s homosexuality and the disco scene’s rampant drug use), but ABBA: The Movie isn’t without its own strange subtext. There are some questionable inclusions in the film’s attempt to push its product. If they were trying to make the group seem hip to kids, it may not have been the best idea to include street interviews where parents praise the music as “nice & clean”. In direct contradiction, there’s a lot made of singer Agnetha Faltskog’s award-winning ass, which is talked about & filmed so much it’s easy to think of her as the Nikki Minaj of her time. My favorite oddball choice is the endless parade of ABBA merchandise (hats, socks, buttons, beer mugs, picture books, etc.) on display while the group sings the anti-capitalist anthem “Money Money Money.” Then there’s an early press conference in which ABBA complains about the grueling ordeal of touring in a movie that glorifies their life on the road. For the most part, though, the film really does live up to the parental-friendly “nice & clean” image the band intentionally cultivated, making little attempt to mine anything under the surface.

There’s not much going on here besides the idea that ABBA is awesome and people who paid to watch their movie mostly just want to watch them play their music. It’s a honest concept I can get behind. Although the film may lack the more bizarre connotations of Can’t Stop the Music, it’s very easy to get swept up in its straightforward “ABBA is awesome!” sentiment when the group is performing killer pop tunes like “Waterloo”, “S.O.S.”, “Mamma Mia” and, of course, “Dancing Queen”. It’s downright fascinating how thick the 70s cheese is here, considering it was released the same year punk starting poking its head out from dive bars and terrified parents across the world. It’s a flawed, corny film, but it’s one that delivers the product it promises. Of course the Australian country music DJ asides are mostly inconsequential, but they don’t overpower the band the same way the plot did in Can’t Stop the Music and they also help to break up the more laborious task a full-on concert movie from the group would’ve presented. All I really wanted from an ABBA movie was some great ABBA musical performances, which it delivered in abundance.

-Brandon Ledet