Axel Petersén's "Avalon": The Last Days of Disco

in 36th Toronto International Film Festival

by Carmen Gray

Set in a Swedish summer resort town, Avalon is the assured feature debut of director Axel Petersén, and turns on the amoral exploits of sixty-something Janne (Johannes Brost) as he prepares to open a new high-end nightclub along with his former business partner Klas (Peter Carlberg). The former big-league party-boy has still not let go of his hedonistic ways, and this attitude of a carefree lifestyle at any price takes on increasingly dark shadings after an accidental but preventable catastrophe threatens to derail his endeavour.

Having completed one year of film school at FAMU in Prague but then focusing his work on visual art, recently having graduated from the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm with a fine arts degree, Petersén has made short films before, but typically with a more experimental bent and screened in gallery-spaces (a short of his which showed in Venice, The Trail Of My Tears 2, was originally an installation). He says the challenge with Avalon was to make something more accessible: “With the whole idea of making a feature film I was very interested in the framework, I wanted to make a genre movie.”

While the film has the plot and tension of a thriller, it also has overtones of the Dogme school in its naturalistic style, recalling Vinterberg’s Festen in its rich characterisation and blackly humorous portrait of an affluent family in denial. Petersén used a mixture of professional and non-professional actors, drawing some of the latter from his own family, who he says inspired the story. “I was very absorbed by the friends of my parents, and my aunt, who are all in their sixties but thinking that they’re 25, just going on, not wanting to have responsibility, not wanting to be grown-ups, just continuing to party. I was very inspired by them, but at the same time it was love-hate, because of the carelessness,” he said. While Petersén’s own father has a small role as the ex-husband of Janne’s sister Jackie, appearing in a masterfully hilarious scene about a stolen painting, it’s the director’s aunt Leonore Ekstrand who commands attention in a stand-out performance as the recently divorced Jackie. The painting in question having hung on Jackie’s wall during her former marriage, when she decides she wants it back she simply breaks into the house to take it, with a sense of entitlement and frivolous disregard for limits which pervades the characters of the film.

While its family-driven ensemble makes for an intimate set-up, Avalon is by no means limited from making wider socio-cultural comment. Bearing the brunt of the repercussions of Janne’s carelessness is a young Lithuanian who has been hired to carry out handywork readying the nightclub for its launch, and has much more at stake than simply losing an expensive artwork — a possession well out of his reach in the first place. He’s one of the many Baltic workers who come to Båstad to earn money over the summer, where Petersén actually grew up. The delapidated, bee-filled shack where he is staying underscores the chasm in economic situation between him and Janne, who is well aware his under-the-table employment arrangement means he holds little paper trace. “If it’s a comment on anything it’s on the fact that Sweden has had to bankrupt some of these Baltic countries just to get ahead,” Petersén said.

Consequences for Janne are a little less tangible. But, impossible not to read in the wrinkles of his tanned face, though it retains the chiselled, handsome contours of a once-younger king-of-the-scene, as much as he wants to live as if it were still the ’80s time and ageing will inevitably always have the final say. A point made very clearly by the lyrics of the Roxy Music track which gives its name to the film’s title, and which pump out on the dancefloor as Janne dances before the club’s launch, alone and undoubtedly reliving younger nights: “The party always has to end.”