A 1989 Swedish film that received its US home-video release in 1997, THE WOMEN ON THE ROOF is about an innocent damsel who becomes involved with a sophisticated woman of the world. What begins as a fairly light and sedately racy game of sexual tag winds up as a horrifying cautionary tale
of child molestation and slavery.
In Stockholm on the eve of WWI, two young women move into adjoining apartments. Linnea (Amanda Ooms) takes a job in a local photo lab. Anna (Helena Bergstrom), her much more worldly neighbor, sets up a photographer's studio in her loft. Subsequently, Anna persuades Linnea to steal photo plates
from work, pose in the nude, become her business partner, and sleep with her. Willy (Stellan Skarsgard), an old friend of Anna's, arrives from Berlin and eventually the three of them are sharing the same bed.
Willy proposes that they all relocate to America, but Anna refuses. When Anna surmises that Willy has sold his knowledge of her whereabouts to her "husband," a photographer named Halling, she turns on him in a fury and, in the scuffle, he is accidentally killed. The two young women drop the corpse
down the chimney and prepare to flee. As they are about to leave, Anna tells Linnea her story.
As a girl growing up in an orphanage, she had been adopted by Halling, who made her his virtual slave. In addition to taking photos of the nude child in bondage, he repeatedly molested her. At 16, she became pregnant, and Halling's attempts to abort the baby resulted in Anna's sterility.
Ultimately, she met Willy, who helped her escape from Halling. After telling her appalling story, Anna commits suicide, and Linnea departs.
Not surprisingly, THE WOMEN ON THE ROOF is good-looking--it was directed by Carl-Gustav Nykvist, the son of Ingmar Bergman's most gifted cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, and was co-photographed by Jorgen Persson, cinematographer of the exquisite ELVIRA MADIGAN (1967). Its clean, pale colors and
elegant compositions are earmarks of consciously aesthetic filmmakers who care passionately about the surface of their film.
It's not inconceivable that Nykvist and crew decided on their movie's time frame, setting, production design, and lighting (Anna observes that "the nordic light is the most beautiful in all of Europe") before settling on a plot. Anna's autobiographical slide show revealing the unspeakable traumas
of her girlhood arrives very late in the proceedings--too far along to expose the film to charges of child-porn exploitation, but also a bit too late to provide an integral thematic linchpin. The horror unearthed by Anna's backstory succeeds in making THE WOMEN ON THE ROOF something more than just
a pretty artifact but also gives this good movie a split personality.
The lovely, tall, and not-quite-gawky Amanda Ooms brings to the role of the passive Linnea an affecting quality of vulnerable, almost simpleminded innocence and pliability--something that is not as easy to do as one would think, as anyone who has seen a Liv Tyler performance can verify. (Violence,extensive nudity, sexual situations, adult situations.)
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