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Göteborg Breakout Johanna Pyykkö on Love, Lies and Symbolism in ‘My Wonderful Stranger’ and Getting Tips From Claire Denis, Jane Campion

One of Scandinavia most interesting new voices, propelled onto the world festival stage with her short film “The Manila Lover,” a Norwegian Amanda best short film and Cannes Critics’ Week nominee, Oslo-based Johanna Pyykkö is competing at the Göteborg Film Festival with her feature debut “My Wonderful Stranger,” which she helmed and co-wrote with Jørgen Færøy Flasnes (“Nudes”).

Shepherding her debut are Dyveke Bjørkly Graver (“Sick of Myself”) and Renée Hansen Mlodyszewski, an associate producer on “The Worst Person in the World,” who produced the pic for Oslo Pictures, in co-production with France’s Bathysphere, MB17 Films, Arte France and Sweden’s Garagefilm. Pyramide International handles sales.

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“My Wonderful Stranger” will bow in French cinemas June 5, via Pyramide Distribution. Scandinavian Film Distribution handles Scandinavian rights.

The story turns on the lonely Ebba, 18, who works as a cleaner at Oslo’s harbour. One night, she finds a beautiful man with a head injury on the ground and tries to help him. After realising the stranger has amnesia, she tricks him into believing they are lovers and builds a world for them based on lies.

“Parts of the story is based on reality – I’ve met women, with similar mythomaniac traits, able to lie a lot,” says Pyykkö, sitting in the buzzy new hub of the Göteborg Film Festival’s Hotel Draken. But this film is pure fiction, told in a rich blend of thriller, fantasy, romance, with shades of humour.

“I wanted to reflect on society – what love is, what it isn’t. What a real relationship is and what it isn’t. I integrated social topics that I’m interested in, as well as storytelling culture, like the Stockholm Syndrome, hostage drama stories that for years have been made into films and books. In a way, I just wanted a film that mixes fantasy with reality and to keep it all together with symbolism,” explains Pyykkö.

The film was also her attempt to shake traditional ways of telling stories. “I find that life in a way is too stereotypical in storytelling so I try to challenge this. I love the surprise element, and use it to introduce a deeper layer to the narration and make it more exciting for audiences. I saw here in Göteborg and in Angers, France [when the pic bowed at the Festival Premiers Plans earlier this month] that people ranging from teens to 65+ were super engaged. It’s great to be able to stir debate via surprise and suspense!” Pyykkö quips.

The themes of power play and identity, explored in “The Manila Lover” and “My Wonderful Stranger,” were partly inspired by her personal experience, as a Finn in Sweden who endured bullying in her youth. “When my parents moved to Sweden from Finland, it was tough and I did experience discrimination – a lot!!,” she admits “That makes me naturally engaged in questions about race, identity, inclusion/exclusion. I always tell my stories from the outside in.”

The well-crafted screenplay, written with Færøy Flasnes, went through several development labs – TIFF Filmmaker Lab in Toronto, the Focus Pro’ Pitch at the Cannes Film Festival, Cannes’ Critics’ Week Next Step Lab and MIA Rome where it received the pitch award ARTE Kino International Prize in 2020.

Johanna Pyykkö
Johanna Pyykkö

Jane Campion, Claire Denis Tips

While the process was beneficial  – “it helped remove everything unnecessary” – Pyykkö felt the urge to ask prominent international female directors Jane Campion and Claire Denis, for their input. She was able to approach them thanks a mentorship grant from the Norwegian government.

“Both Claire and Jane work with symbolism in a deep way. I knew that my script would be challenged by expert readers, and I wanted to see how to stay true to my own vision.“

Pyykkö was reassured when after watching “The Manila Lover,” the illustrious filmmakers said she clearly had her own style and references. “They told me: Every time you lose yourself artistically, it is when you don’t follow your intuition, so just do!”

Pyykkö went ahead with her co-writer, and fed her crew with a 90-page document with references for each scene. “We wanted everyone to get into the symbolism and be motivated,” says the director who enjoyed her team work with DoP Torbjørn Sundal Holen (“Power Play”) and production designer Kristian Lahn Vestby (“Nach”) with whom she executed some drawings, hanging on the walls of the central house and location in the movie. Among the key symbols or leitmotifs were the shape of a human being, and a seagull – “a lot of people see them as a parasite,” Pyykkö stresses.

Deeply involved with every artist part of her journey, the helmer praised also the contribution from composers Jakob Lindhagen and Delphine Malaussena. “They were influenced by our references and working with a Swedish and French composer allowed us to bring strong European sensibilities at all levels.”

Visual and mood references for the sensuous, fluid style ranged from Ingmar Bergman  – “he can mix genres, be altogether ironic, funny, existential and symbolic” – Lynne Ramsay “for the texture in the rooms, to Claire Denis. “I like the way she works with rhythm and themes, using objects for instance to reflect those themes.”

Casting was challenged by COVID and was a long process. The young leading actress Camilla Godø Krohn was found following a casting of 700 candidates. “I loved working with Camilla – she is totally different from Ebba in the movie, but she can get into the mind of any character. She also uses her body, to be both vulnerable and strong.”

The male lead Radoslav Vladimirov was found two days before rehearsal began. “We were so lucky to find him,” says Pyykkö who was looking for an actor with a particular beauty, able to play a character who uses that beauty to lure women.

Talking Göteborg, a festival which “interacts wonderfully with audiences,” the director feels honoured to be selected for the Nordic competition strand. “It’s a very very strong lineup. It will be tough!”, she laughs.

Next up for her is a fantasy pic produced again by Bjørkly Graver for her new Norwegian outfit Eye Eye Pictures, a Swedish feature and various scripts.

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