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‘Love & Anarchy’ Has Liberated The Rom-Com From Its Neoliberal Shackles

Screenshot: Netflix

The grand gesture at the end of Love & Anarchy, Netflix’s rom-com series out of Sweden, is not one of love. It’s not even one for another person. It’s not even for the self, so much as it is for the mind. The grand gesture at the end of Love & Anarchy is the acceptance of insanity—or what is considered to be insanity by a world that, let’s face it, is itself insane. That it is a woman doing the gesturing makes it all the more grand. We all know the baggage around a woman losing her mind. Centuries of work to undo the belief that women are hysterical and emotional and entirely uncontrollable, capped off by a woman in a bathrobe and slippers marching across the entire city of Stockholm only to arrive at the publishing company where she works, which is about to sell its soul to a streaming service (not Netflix), where she announces, her face still flush from the luxury spa she has just abandoned: “Stand tall.”

The series—comprising eight 30-minute episodes—is the first from Swedish filmmaker Lisa Langseth, though it very much continues the theme of fungible identity that defines her three films, Pure, Hotell and Euphoria. Ida Engvoll plays Sofie, a 30-something mother of two with a beautiful home and a beautiful (rich) husband and a lucrative-if-not-beautiful job (media consultant), all of which are basically the reward for a whole-hearted embrace of capitalism. Sofie, a writer manqué, has chosen this life as a conscious rejection of her father’s, a radical socialist who spends his time protesting when he isn’t in a psych ward. Still, Sofie only really seems to be herself in the bathroom (stay with me), the site of her daily secret masturbation routine to overly loud porn. It is this habit that lands her in an escalating screwball-esque game of dares with a much younger IT guy named Max (Björn Mosten, in his debut) after he catches her in flagrante delicto after hours at the office. His surreptitious photo of Sofie’s sex act is promptly replaced as a bargaining chip by her favorite red lipstick, which the pair pass back and forth to encourage increasingly antisocial acts of rebellion—from yelling indiscriminately at co-workers, to spontaneously pitching the city’s top publisher a book, to dressing like Cyndie Lauper—which, of course, has them falling for each other, which finally wakes Sofie up to who she wants to be, rather than who she doesn’t.

I’ve re-watched Love & Anarchy multiple times since it first appeared on Netflix in November and, initially, I couldn’t quite figure out why I was so drawn to it. I don’t even like rom-coms all that much. But then I realized what it was—this was not a young woman’s fantasy playing out within the real world, but an older woman’s id, unshackled by reality. The show’s rejection of a society that continues to limit women despite its many advances is confrontational in a way the neotraditional rom-com that ran Hollywood at the turn of the 21st century—and is currently enjoying something of a renaissance—never was. As Maria San Filippo writes in the introduction to the newly released collection After “Happily Ever After”: Romantic Comedy in the Post-Romantic Age, “Neotraditional romcoms paper over the dawning disillusionment provoked by the recognition that feminism’s promise of women’s professional and sexual fulfillment was stymied by systemic barriers, persistent inequality, and the impossibility of ‘having it all.’” While the current cycle of rom-coms is more inclusive—per Filippo, the genre now has “the impulse to couple romcom and realism”—the limitations of neoliberalism remain. The rom-com revival on streaming services (the brainchild, naturally, of two middle-aged white guys at Netflix), which seeks to fill the hole in the middle of the market that cinema’s tentpoles left behind, is more diverse because it is within the companies’ economic interest to appeal more widely. The new romantic comedy takes the very white, very cis, very hetero, very wealthy—I’m not even going to get into the egregious lack of body diversity—narrative popularized by Nancy Meyers, and tweaks it by switching out, uhm, like one or two of those at a time. Always Be My Maybe, for instance, has Asian stars, but they remain very cis and very hetero and very wealthy. Happiest Season, for another instance, has a lesbian couple at its center, but they remain very white and very wealthy. No matter how radical the Old Hollywood roots of the rom-com may be—commenting on class, skirting the code—modern-day Hollywood made bank on frothy fantasy romances that only suspended disbelief so long as they didn’t threaten belief in the neoliberal worldview lining Hollywood’s pockets.

Love & Anarchy is particularly destabilizing for initially appearing to exploit every Meyers trope—before a sudden about-face. Though Meyers has not directed a feature in six years, the pandemic has resurfaced her oeuvre as an oasis of comfort in a desert of isolation. In December, Rachel Handler launched a Nancy Meyers Week at Vulture, extracting the elements of a “Platonically Ideal Nancy Meyers film” in order to recast the filmmaker, often dismissed as an untalented chick flick pusher, as an auteur. Meyers’s typical heroine, Handler determined, is around 40, wealthy, white, ambitious, independent, and neurotic, with an Architectural Digest spread for a home. She falls for an old white guy who is equally wealthy and ambitious (also with an Architectural Digest spread for a home but this one coded male) who gets a lot more ass than she does. Everything is white, from turtlenecks to bathtubs to children. The flat lighting of a Meyers film that centers its set design, that showcases objects rather than people, has spawned a litany of generically affluent interiors in the same genre. In Love & Anarchy, this fashion-magazine aesthetic persists, but upon closer inspection it leans more towards Sofia Coppola than Meyers—it is high style rather than merely high price. Reminiscent of Charlotte in Lost in Translation, Sofie wears lush loose pastels and red lipstick that pops through it all. The lighting is soft and naturalistic, with the kind of dreamy, dappled blur that signals tasteful European cinema. That Langseth has a film background makes sense (Love & Anarchy was originally meant to be a feature) because this look suggests cinema rather than streaming. But where a Meyers film is about what you want, Langseth’s series is about how you feel.

If Love & Anarchy were a Meyers film, at first blush Sofie would fit in seamlessly. She is an impishly cute blond along the lines of Meg Ryan, as white and cis and hetero as the rom-com heroine was designed to be. In her case, the neuroses are tamped down, but the specter of mental illness is everywhere. Sofie has acquired all the accoutrements of a Meyers heroine, all of society’s hallmarks of success and stability, but it is this elaborate role play which ultimately drives her out of her mind. And it is instability that brings her back. That instability comes in the form of Max, who barely looks out of his teens, a guy so beautiful only his somewhat blemished skin and overly dry lips seem to make him mortal. This guy comes from the suburbs, shares a flat with a shower in the hallway, is only a temp, and, most importantly, prefers older women (he even goes down on them!). Yet neither his 15-year-or-so age gap with Sofie, nor the fact that she is cheating on her husband, nor their rebellious office behavior seems to really strike either of them as out of the ordinary. And when you think about it, the arbitrary demands of a patriarchal society on women are perhaps more unhinged than this couple’s impulses. And just as Keanu Reeves seemed to get Diane Keaton in Meyers’s 2003 film Something’s Gotta Give in a way that Jack Nicholson did not, perhaps because of Max’s youth, he is the only one who sees Sofie for who she really is. As he says at the end of the series, “I love your insanity.”

It speaks to the inert core of Meyers’s films that she would use a rock as a metaphor (in Something’s Gotta Give, Keaton collects white beach pebbles—Nicholson adds the lone dark one), where Love & Anarchy reaches for plants. The title of the series refers to the book that Sofie wrote when she was around Max’s age. It’s about a girl who discovers she is a seed, who develops into a bluebell, then a rose, then a tree, then a whole forest. “She keeps growing and realizes that everything contains something, which in turn contains something else,” Sofie explains to Max, who instead of scoffing like her husband, just says, “Beautiful.” Max, of all people, would appreciate a plant metaphor considering his tiny room is filled with them. Growth for him turns out to be standing up to his mother; for Sofie it is standing up to everything she once valued, the things society itself values—looking hot, having a hot spouse, hot clothes, a hot job. This is an alternative world in which a woman’s appearance, including her age and her weight, goes uncommented upon. In which a younger man can consider an older woman’s nudity “amazing” rather than shameful, in which the better man is not the mercenary, but the younger one who is emotionally mature, even if he isn’t old enough to have a medical degree (this is not the guy who buys the perfect rubber plants, he’s the one who prefers the real ones). Sex in this world isn’t pornographic, it’s intimate, and success does not require being fucked. The overarching truth is that Sofie’s freedom is tied to the opposite of whatever the female rom-com tropes are that she seemed to embody at the start. That neoliberal dream of aspirational self-fulfillment? Love & Anarchy chucks it all. The fantasy here is freedom.

“You have to be very, very strong to take care of your own freedom,” Langseth said in 2016. “And I don’t think that [all] people have this strength.” This is what Love & Anarchy is about. It is not ultimately a rom-com about finding the perfect guy, but finding emancipation (which, OK, yes, happens to be found through a guy)—emancipation from the confines of society, confines we are too often willing to accept. Langseth described it as her “dream project” that she wrote “alone in the basement.” And while it would be easy to chalk up the subversive nature of Love & Anarchy to her being Swedish—by now Sweden’s reputation for being more progressive is its own cliché—where she is from men do still benefit more than women. In the series, Langseth actually plays a columnist whose ex writes a book about their private life and who is manipulated by the publisher into tearing his book down—this is a woman in power, but in response to a man, and ultimately for the benefit of a company. As Sofie’s father says, “Capitalism makes commodities out of all of us.” Except her. In Love & Anarchy, the happy ending is the way out. “You’re a forest now,” Sofie’s father tells her. “A forest of rebellion.”

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