Miriam Bäckström


Miriam Bäckström’s fine new film Rebecka, 2004, elicits the double entendre: where truth lies. In the film, Bäckström depends on a routine interview style to put forty-two minutes worth of questions and decrees to Rebecka Hemse, a renowned Swedish actress. It is perhaps not so odd that Rebecka calls to mind the first reality-TV show, An American Family, the 1973 cinema verité documentary chronicling seven months of the Louds carrying on their middle-class life. Yet no secret is made of the fact that there is a script for Rebecka; Bäckström met with Hemse several times during its preparation, and the actress occasionally refers to its pages on camera, raising the question of whether she is looking at a screenplay or a reconstructed account of those earlier conversations. Rather than chronicling reality, Rebecka succeeds at the invention of truth where “staging the real” has become an acceptable, if ambiguous documentary form.

Bäckström’s nimble script begins with a conceit. “I can answer your questions,” Hemse explains, “if you tell me what to say,” thus pulling the plug on realism while underlining that her role in life is to act. This echoes Andy Warhol’s hilarious BBC interview where he stubbornly insisted that his interviewer ask his questions with answers à la mode. But there is little comic relief in Rebecka. The film pulses on conversational tides, some even cringe inducing, and by its end, when Hemse says, “If I see the fiction as something authentic, why leave the fiction at all?” everything’s become a conundrum. Has she turned in a genuine performance or merely been genuine? Asked how she approaches realism in a “behind-the-scenes film” (such as Rebecka), Hemse is blunt: “I play an actress.” To compound the ambiguity, questions and answers are often set in a staccato rhythm. Bäckström wonders if Hemse is ever unguarded. Her answer ricochets, never connecting with the question: “I’m most open when I am playing open.”

In Sweden, the reception of Rebecka has been focused on Bäckström’s subtlety at creating irresolvable ambiguities within Hemse’s “character”—and it’s splendidly carried off. But cursory attention has been paid to Bäckström’s own role, as the unseen interloper, upstaging the camera with commands that are all the more intimidating for being soft-spoken: “Look like you are in love. . . . I want to see how you look when you eat. Eat this. . . . I’ll give you a series of statements and I want you to state them. . . . Be so kind and let your hair down.” Hemse complies, but whenever she falls short of Bäckström’s expectations, as happens when she is told to put her hair up again, Bäckström’s reprimands are swift: “Go and do it properly.” Hemse obeys. Bäckström’s single appearance in her film—reaching into the frame to pick lint off the actress’s dress—silently telegraphs further disappointment.

Sprinkled throughout the conversation are emotionally loaded zigzags of disquieting effect, as when Bäckström inquires if Hemse could fall in love with her. But nothing is more unsettling or less expected than when Bäckström says, without a speck of emotion: “Here you cry.” The words fall like the overture to some horrific session of torture. And Hemse weeps. Bäckström has created a significant invention of real drama with Rebecka that skirts in and out of different truths so quickly that it is blistering. If you are lucky, you can give in to it.

Ronald Jones