IT’S NOT EASY BEING A BIG-CITY WOMAN IN A SMALL-MINDED TOWN.
It was the best Sweden had to offer in 1992. Winning the local equivalent to Oscar’s Best Picture, House of Angels was sent to Hollywood but it never caught fire and wasn’t even nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. A German comedy called Schtonk! was however; Indochine won the Oscar. The category needed House of Angels, but the film never really needed an Oscar. It was a tremendous hit in Sweden, spawning two sequels, and remains beloved.
When a local curmudgeon (Per Oscarsson) is killed in a freak accident, the whole village of Yxared, located somewhere in the middle of Sweden, is abuzz with rumors. He owned an 18th-century mansion with surrounding land and now the village’s wealthiest landowner, Axel Flogfält (Sven Wollter), wants to lay his hands on the property. The funeral arrives with somewhat of a shock for everyone in the village – the old man turns out to have had a granddaughter.
Fanny Zander (Helena Bergström) arrives in Yxared on a motorcycle together with her best friend, Zac (Rikard Wolff). The colorful, urban couple make a living as performance artists in obscure clubs and stand out like a sore thumb in the village…
Recognizing local quirks
The British filmmaker Colin Nutley came to Sweden in the 1980s, first making a miniseries and then getting his breakthrough with a couple of films that seemed to capture something unique about Swedes and their way of life. Perhaps it took someone born in a different country to properly recognize local quirks, but obviously Nutley was a person who also knew his craft and how to take cinematic advantage of what he was observing.
In many of his movies, he has also shown a particular interest in rural societies, perhaps reflecting his own upbringing in a small English town. House of Angels became his best attempt at capturing something arch-Swedish and critics were specially enthusiastic about his portrait of the dangers of xenophobia. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that Nutley is depicting a whole village as racist, but the film actually shows how one dominant family poisons the minds of their neighbors while also trying their best to enrich themselves. The arrival of Fanny and Zac is a breath of fresh air in a place that seems stuck in its ways; slowly, people like the local priest (Reine Brynolfsson) begin to break free from the stranglehold of the Flogfält family. Wollter and Seldahl (married in real life) are very enjoyable as the heads of the family, and they are part of a perfect cast, including Bergström and Wolff as the sexy and liberal-minded showbiz duo, and Tord Peterson and Ernst Günther as aging and reclusive brothers who never married and now live together in the house once owned by their parents.
The film is fun and has charm to spare. Much of the dialogue was worked out between Nutley and the cast while shooting the film, which is obvious in some scenes… but on the whole it’s a fresh approach resulting in conversations and arguments that are entertaining and sound authentic; Seldahl is particularly good at that as Axel’s quarrelsome wife.
Jens Fischer’s cinematography delivers a few outstanding postcards from the Swedish countryside, but he also makes sure that the darkness in Nutley’s script comes forth in discreet ways; the film is full of bittersweet touches, and that’s also true of Björn Isfält’s highly memorable music score. The story may be largely predictable, but the other ingredients compensate tremendously.
House of Angels 1992-Sweden-Denmark-Norway. 127 min. Color. Produced by Lars Dahlquist. Written and directed by Colin Nutley. Cinematography: Jens Fischer. Music: Björn Isfält. Cast: Helena Bergström (Fanny Zander), Rikard Wolff (Zac), Sven Wollter (Axel Flogfält), Reine Brynolfsson, Ernst Günther, Viveka Seldahl… Per Oscarsson, Tord Peterson, Ing-Marie Carlsson, Jan Mybrand, Peter Andersson, Jakob Eklund, Görel Crona, Johannes Brost, Carl-Einar Häckner.
Trivia: Original title: Änglagård. Followed by two sequels, starting with Änglagård – andra sommaren (1994) (reviews in Swedish).