X&Y tests the intersections of art and gender

Swedish art provocateur Anna Odell and star Mikael Persbrandt share a rehearsal stage with six other actors playing versions of the pair in a dizzying, piercing satire of gender and art’s intersections.

Sophie Gråbøl, Vera Vitali, Anna Odell and Jens Albinus as ‘Anna Odell’ in X&Y (2018)

X&Y is streaming on Mubi.

Swedish enfant terrible Anna Odell uses personal experience in her films to dramatic real-life effect.

In 2009, she first made a name for herself with Unknown, Woman 2009-349701 (Okänd, kvinna 2009-349701), her final art school project, where she staged and filmed a documentary of a psychological breakdown and suicide attempt at Liljeholmsbron, a central bridge in Stockholm, to invite public discourse on mental illness and psychiatric practices in Sweden. In addition to incurring a fine and a conviction for violent resistance to police arrest, fraudulent practice and making a false alarm, Odell became the subject of media scrutiny and public debate.

In 2013, she garnered international attention with her brilliantly confrontational feature film The Reunion (Återträffen), imagining the school reunion she wasn’t invited to before screening its re-enactment to another set of actors playing the bullies who excluded her.

With X&Y (2019), she has constructed a more elaborate meta narrative to further explore reality through re-enactment. Informed by the structure of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), with the staging of Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003) and dark humour of his The Boss of it All (2006), X&Y is, at heart, an earnest pursuit of truth, through smoke and mirrors.

Odell stars opposite Mikael Persbrandt, in Sweden a beloved bad boy, celebrated in the media as both heartthrob and esteemed actor despite multiple drug arrests. They play versions of themselves – their public personas. Sitting opposite each other in a studio-replica interrogation room, they hash out the ‘boundaries’ of their ‘performances’ in their film project and stoke a delicious, simmering sexual tension that Odell will later use as if it were Chekhov’s gun.

Thure Lindhardt, Trine Dyrholm and Mikael Persbrandt playing shades of ‘Mikael Persbrandt’ in X&Y

The film-within-a-film that we watch them craft becomes an ouroboros. Odell’s method is research and performance side-by-side. Tension mounts as the actors plead for a script – but everything we see is scripted. How much is documentary re-enactment and how much is fiction is all part of the meta mystery, but you can imagine the confusion of Odell’s producers faced with this style of rehearsal. (It comes as little surprise to learn that she and they parted company in mid-production.)

This structure, along with the deployment of multiple other actors to play different versions of Odell and Persbrandt, affords the film layers within which to explore identity and what it means to be a man or a woman, an artist and a human being. For all the cacophony – with up to four versions of Odell flirting or arguing with up to four versions of Persbrandt – it is very funny. There is even a joke about the marketing potential of an artist being sued for sexually harassing herself.

Indeed, X&Y’s findings are less about chromosomes and more about the unease and uncertainty of artistic responsibility and accountability. Well aware of the history of cinema she’s taking on, from Ingmar Bergman to the more recent #MeToo movement in Hollywood, Odell is always in control, even when, for the viewer, her boundary-pushing is pit-of-the-stomach uncomfortable.

What makes the nuance of her critique so enjoyable is that these ethics are explored by the crème de la crème of Nordic actors: Sofie Gråbøl, Vera Vitali and Jens Albinus each play an aspect of Odell while Trine Dyrholm, Shanti Roney and Thure Lindhardt reflect Persbrandt. All are excellent but Dyrholm is the standout, clearly relishing playing the adored man opposite whom she once performed magnificently in Susanne Bier’s Oscar-winning In a Better World (2010).

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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