In Limbo at Cinema City
Maria Sødahl has made an assured feature debut with Limbo (2010), which was previously screened at Montreal and Thessaloniki. Set in the 1970s, Limbo centres on a Norwegian woman named Sonia who, with her two children, goes to Trinidad to join her husband Joe who is working for an oil company. She receives a warm welcome from the expatriate community, especially the Swedish wife of one of Joe’s colleagues who is happy to find someone who speaks her language.
But Sonia is ill at ease with their new lifestyle, from the uncomfortable décor of their house, with its formal, overbearing housekeeper Mrs. George, to the superficiality of the wives who follow their husbands wherever their temporary contracts lead them. Although her children seem to enjoy the novelty of living on a tropical island, Sonia worries about the strict discipline and all-English instruction at their local Catholic school. Also, while she is happy to be reunited with her husband, he spends much of his time at the office (with his pretty Trinidadian secretary) or on business trips, so she and the children are often left to cope on their own.
The film’s theme could be described as ‘culture shock’, as it focuses on the combination of enjoyment and stress of moving to a new country, and how people react to it. There is also the theme of colonialism: although the film is set in the 1970s, when Trinidad is no longer a British colony, the island nation is subject to the economic imperialism of foreign companies that have moved in to exploit their natural resources. But Trinidad is pushing for nationalization of their oil industry, so the expatriate party may soon be over.
There have been many other films, Claire Denis’s Chocolat (1988) for example, that have explored the experiences of European women and children who move to quasi-colonial circumstances. Such films, Limbo included, often highlight the natives as a sexual threat to the unity of the European couple. This is because the natives are typically seen as more powerful and sexually attractive than their European counterparts. Limbo does not romanticise or fetishise the locals, but treats all of its characters as people, with problems and prejudices which transcend ethnicity.
Trinidad provides Limbo with a visually interesting setting and an excellent source of tensions as Sonia and her family attempt to cope with their new environment. The film’s real focus, though, is human relationships: husbands and wives, mothers and children, and female friends. Refreshingly, Sødahl is not afraid to show female characters portraying raw, visceral emotions, and knows just when to apply the brakes. A wag might call this film ‘Scandinavian Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’, but this is a drama, not a comedy, and the women’s reactions to their circumstances are normal when seen in relation to their feeling of powerlessness.