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IFFR Review

X&Y

Swedish artist Anna Odell ups the game in her exploration of primal male-female relationships and the act of creation

Savina Petkova on Anna Odell’s ‘X&Y’ (2019)

Rather than studying the conjoint function of life and art, Swedish artist-filmmaker Anna Odell investigates the point where art becomes threatening to life. In her bold directorial approach, Odell is both a performance artist and a cathartic therapist, alternating from exploration of introvert traumas to extrovert curiosity regarding shapeshifting, performative identity. In her provocative method lies a rebellion against structures of gender and institutions. X&Y is an experiment, confined in a film studio setting, featuring Odell as protagonist, together with celebrated Swedish hunk Mikael Persbrandt (as himself), in an unscripted project that challenges the notion of wholesome subjectivity. By introducing six different actors to play their respective alter egos, Anna and Mikael engage in the deconstruction of their star personas, as well as their own psychological personalities.

The film constructs its own space in a studio set, laying bare the building blocks of a film — separate personally-furnished rooms for the cast to live in together, and never out of character. The camera crosses the private and public boundaries by interchanging between God’s eye crane views and handheld in intimate moments of masturbation or intercourse. Sexuality is the central theme of self-investigation, as suggested by the film’s title allusion to male and female chromosomes. Challenging sexual dynamics of the “alpha male” and “female predator”, Anna and Mikael construct a socially experimental flirtation, which goes back and forth in the set’s interrogation room, when they discuss the possibility of Anna using a strap-on to dominate him.

This theatre of personality is framed by absurdism, such as a long sequence in which Anna and Mikael have a conversation about feelings, and then each of them points to one of their alter egos to finish the conversations, based on what part of their personality is evoked. A comic approach reveals the nuances of traumas and projections, that take over even in a simple dialogue. A meta-take on acting and human interaction as performance is the core of X&Y. Casting some of Sweden’s finest actors and actresses as her alter egos, Anna Odell still strays away from narcissistic accusations, since her director-character plays both the consolidating and divisive element in the film.

The power position of director is explored and exploited in a masterful way in the film’s meta-narrative. Anna, portraying herself as the director, becomes subjected to criticism. From lack of professionalism, crossing boundaries, not having the script on time, to sexual misconduct. Shot parallel with the emergence of the #MeToo movement, X&Y’s feminist disposition is never made too explicit. Moreover, it functions as a criticism to any overpowering mouthful of a director that could be male or female. By portraying herself in such an unflattering way, Odell conducts a form of auto-therapy, an exorcism of her controversial star persona.

X&Y breaks its observational documentary approach in sequences of intimacy and sex. Bodies are portrayed as desiring machines and their desired counterparts, chemistry and hormones imbuing the air as the director’s strive for a primal representation hits the walls of the enormous studio. Shifting between God’s eye shots over the stage (remember Trier’s Dogville?) and close-ups of bodies behind closed doors, the notion of privacy is reduced to an unnecessary self-restriction. The way that bodies become liberated intertwines with Odell’s directorial inclinations towards the animalistic side of humans – an affective sequence finds her character self-pleasuring in the woods, imagining herself as a fox.

The film’s aim is to provoke identity dysmorphia and confusion, exploring the lines between fact, fiction, characters, actors, and alter egos. By the end of the film, when Anna returns from a production break pregnant, everyone on and off screen ponders if she is actually carrying Michael’s baby. Her approach to filmmaking and performance art is so deeply personal that she addresses her work as an “art baby”, while poor Michael stresses out in planning how to tell his real-life wife and family that metaphors are sometimes staggeringly real. A great, punchy ending wraps up this provocative turn of events, as X&Y proves to be a worthy experiment for psychologists, visual artists, and spectators alike. After all, aren’t we all into art for the “art babies”?

Screened as part of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.