Close Up

7 - 14 January 2022: Take Two: Jörn Donner

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Jörn Donner (1933-2020) was a Finnish author, film director, producer, screenwriter, film critic and former CEO of the Swedish Film Institute. Curated by Ehsan Khoshbakht, this small tribute presents two of his best known and influential films made in Finland in the 1960s, screened from archival 35mm prints.


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Black on White
Jörn Donner, 1968, 95 min, 35mm
Finnish with English subtitles
Introduced by Ehsan Khoshbakht

"A Finland undergoing urbanization and evolving into a consumer society came under close scrutiny when the writer and cultural opinion-maker Jörn Donner, whose first four directorial efforts were in Sweden, directed his [first Finnish film] about a disintegrating middle-class marriage and a salesman struggling on the verge of burnout. The arena of conflict here, as in Donner's subsequent films, is in bed, whosesoever it might be. The point of departure is a family portrait: an ideal image of happiness, a miniature of affluent Finland. The protagonist borders on burnout, and the camera follows the drama of the other disintegrating characters and relationships as if in a laboratory experiment." – Peter von Bagh

"Nothing much happens, but a great deal is revealed about the illusion of happiness, as a young businessman (well played by Donner himself) breaks up his 'perfect' marriage to pursue a short-lived affair with a flighty young secretary (Halkola). He manoeuvres to get her away on an imaginary business trip; he begins to get caught up in a tissue of lies both at home and at the office; and he watches helplessly as the girl gradually drifts indifferently away, leaving him forlornly dogging her footsteps. With quiet, unobtrusive compassion, always revealing more than is said, Donner records the hell on earth of man's quest for happiness." – Tom Milne


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Sixtynine
Jörn Donner, 1969, 98 min, 35mm
Finnish with English subtitles
Introduced by Ehsan Khoshbakht

When a working woman learns of her part-time hockey referee husband's infidelity, she takes her gynaecologist's advice, to "take a lover", seriously and ends up sleeping with him. 

This sex comedy, Jörn Donner's second Finnish feature after four films made in Sweden, was deemed too scandalous even for Finnish society in the late 1960s. It continues some of the themes the director had previously explored in Black on White (1968) and with its fluent use of fast cutting and motion, fantasy sequences and documentary style camerawork, it could be seen as Finland's response to the Swinging Sixties, as the decade was coming to a close. 

As well the title's allusion to the year, Donner (who himself appears playing the role of the dispassionate gynaecologist) says the film is called Sixtynine because the relationships in the film have turned upside-down – despite some Finns feeling near certain that some "immoral sexual acts" were meant to be promoted by the film.

Donner, like his mentor and friend Ingmar Bergman (about whom he wrote a book), shows a feeling of being closer to women, adopting a female perspective in the story. The playful shifting of gender stereotypes found here, however, is something Bergman never bothered with.

Using a circular narrative, Donner shows as much fascination with surfaces (modernist interior spaces, leftist chic, plenty of pop and rock music) as with the inner feelings and dilemmas of the characters, as a generation living the same lifestyle as the one before it suddenly discovers that it no longer suits their psychological exigencies. Hence a comedy of gender identities is born. The only character with his four feet on the ground is a dog, who shares almost the same amount of screen space as the humans. – Ehsan Khoshbakht


This programme is supported by Finnish Institute in London and Finland's National Audiovisual Institute – KAVI. With the kind permission of Rafael Donner.