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After all these years (I remember the hub-bub when this was released in
'66) I was thrilled to finally see DEAR JOHN, a great Swedish film
which proved to be the "date movie" of its day here in America. And I
also discovered why it has fallen into obscurity.
Writer-director Lars-Magnus Lindgren, a very talented & versatile filmmaker, brought impressive technique to telling a simple tale, of a wanderlust sailor and a single-parent waitress who fall in love. Nowadays there would have to be a hook, some fantastic or deus ex machina gimmickry to keep the audience's attention, as in the string of dreadful Nicholas Sparks soggy-romance adaptations, including coincidentally a new film called DEAR JOHN.
But Lindgren wisely keeps it simple, natural, believable and moving, his only trick being a very complicated time structure of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. There's method in this approach, as the film's final two twists take on a depth thanks to the careful foreshadowing (playing off and around the film's title implication of a farewell note).
Casting is in no small measure the secret of Lindgren's success here. Jarl Kulle is the 30-something hero, quite different from his archly played Bergman roles of the period like THE DEVIL'S EYE and ALL THESE WOMEN. Because they're Bergman works, though among his least favored, I used to see them all the time, but DEAR JOHN remained elusive all these years.
Kulle's sailor has a Billy Budd hairstyle which immediately gives Kulle the necessary youthful appearance. He seems self-centered and "one of the guys" for the early part of the film, leading the audience to believe he's only out for a sexual conquest to tell all his pals about. This adds wonderful panache when the tables seem to be turned in later reels, all leading to an even-handed and satisfying romantic conclusion.
As the leading lady we don't have a blonde bombshell but instead the very ordinary (but lovely) Christina Schollin, who reminded me strongly of America's Mary Stuart Masterson (they even have the same toothy smile). Like Schollin, Masterson was cast in many leading roles for about a decade starting in the mid-'80s but never broke out of the pack to achieve stardom. Even her BENNY & JOON opposite Johnny Depp didn't cement her in the pantheon.
With Schollin, the breaks were there, the performances too, but she's still too little known. Her Arne Mattsson film WOMAN OF DARKNESS is brilliant, and of course it doesn't get any better than Bergman's FANNY AND Alexander. Back in DEAR JOHN she is touching, so natural one never feels you're watching a star turn. The script's frank treatment of sex (there are many jokes later on about Kulle's "John Thomas", not the sort of thing you'd see or hear about in a Hollywood movie of the time) is its initial drawing card, with extremely tasteful nude scenes.
So flash-forward to the 21st Century and it is precisely the hokey films that fans (and grubby video distributors) have revived. Sex movies like Joe Sarno's INGA or a slew of Mac Ahlberg soft (and hard) porn titles are in circulation, but not DEAR JOHN.
Helena Nilsson is wonderful, again completely natural, as Schollin's cute child, and Kulle's impromptu spiriting them away to Copenhagen to see the zoo is a beautifully directed set-piece. And Rune Ericson's black & white visuals are evocative -I've always loved his work for Mai Zetterling and this movie explains why she made him her go-to d.p.
Now I'll have to hunt for even more obscure Schollin/Kulle pairings from the early '60s: Lindgren's LOVE MATES and Swedish WEDDING NIGHT; unsung quality cinema.
"Käre John" had its premiere when I was a school boy. I remember much talk
about its nude scenes. Sweden was renowned for that kind in those days.
made me never want to see the film. I'm glad I didn't, not even when I was
15 and could. I'm glad because I was too unexperienced to understand the
love story. To-day the film would be allowed to all ages here (but is - of
course - of no interest to too young ones), the nude scenes are nothing
perfectly natural settings.
I'm surprised over how modern the whole film seems: the actors act naturally - not theatrically (and very good), the script is just as good. Most notable is the odd jumping to and fro in the chronology of the story. That must have been much before the time the film was set in, 1964.
In short: a good depiction of a simple story we all can recognize ourselves in.
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