The heart wants what it wants, but does not get – this is the premise of Swedish actress-director Fanni Metelius’s debut The Heart (Hjartat), about a young photographer Mika and her musician boyfriend Tesfay who are madly in love, yet cannot seem to make their relationship work.
While The Heart treads familiar ground, Metelius’s directorial vision is assured and the film’s packaging trendy. The net result is an engaging portrait of a modern-day Swedish relationship, whilst carrying some strong messages about female sexuality and independence. The film made its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, under the Bright Future section.
Set in Sweden, The Heart chronicles the progressive development of the romantic relationship between Mika (starring Metelius herself) and Tesfay (Ahmed Berhan): from hanging out together as classmates in art school, to casual dating, to moving in together in Stockholm and the subsequent giddy honeymoon phase. But the cracks begin to emerge when Tesfay spends more time playing video games on a couch than he does talking to his girlfriend, and Mika begins missing the spontaneity she experienced in singlehood – though the main issue that drives them apart is simply, a lack of sex.
There isn’t anything explosively wrong with their relationship, and both Mika and Tesfay are decent, sensitive and relatable people by nature. That the impending fall-out unfolds so imperceptibly yet realistically midway with no clear victim in sight, works well rather than playing a needless game of who’s to blame. The Heart is instead concerned with charting the changing power dynamics and gender role reversals among the couple, in the lead-up to and aftermath of their breakup.
Metelius, who previously starred in Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure, had initially sought to cast another actress as the main lead, though after much consideration she decided that it would be easier to take on the part herself. It is an excellent decision – Metelius has crafted a strong, individualistic female protagonist, and plays Mika with a combination of bold frankness and genial femininity.
There is no denying the comfortable onscreen chemistry between her and Berhan, who convincingly play each other’s first loves. Their moments of intimacy are raw and febrile, captured by the camera in silent, obtrusive close-ups of bodies colliding and heavy breathing. And for Mika, who proclaims her love for sex, freedom, Samantha Jones from television series Sex and The City and whose biggest fear is becoming a disempowered, sad “refrigerator girlfriend,” it is during sex that she completely loses herself to someone else, her vulnerabilities and insecurities laid bare. So much that we can understand her devastation when Tesfay consistently rejects her sexual advances, because it is akin to a rejection of her womanhood.
There are some strong assertions of female independence and sexuality in The Heart, as we watch Mika struggle to regain her self-confidence and learn to be happy again on her own terms. And the message Metelius hopes to send to the audience is loud and clear, most tellingly in a scene when Mika, believing she’s the problem in her relationship, entertains the thought of therapy. This provokes her mother to snap in response: “It’s so damn typical that the woman assumes she needs therapy, when it’s the man who generally has issues!”
Much of the film takes place under the pulsating beats and flashing neon lights of a party, nightclub or beach rave, with perhaps one too many scenes featuring gyrating sweaty bodies armed with booze. Alongside catchy club music anthems and hip hop remixes in English and Swedish, the stylish cinematography recreates the heady days of youth, where one could still dance till dawn with reckless abandon. But even if you’re not into partying, The Heart is sure to resonate with millennials all too familiar with the vicissitudes of love and heartbreak – the film was fittingly released in Sweden on Valentine’s Day.