Same Blood: ‘Let the Right One In’ and Young Queerness

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large let the right one in blu-ray11Oskar, the pre-pubescent protagonist of Let the Right One In, is about as pale as the snow that blankets the frigid landscape around him in Stockholm, Sweden. His hair is technically blonde, but looks so drained of its color it might as well be just as frosted as his skin. He’s emaciated, seemingly all skin and bone with no muscle to be found. His lips look like faint, thin grey lines on his face. He is, most importantly, androgynous looking. All of these elements that make of Oskar’s character, not to mention his slight personality, so timid and naïve, are enough to give the bullies at his school reason enough to violently harass him. Even at the tender age of 12, the roles in this society are set: if one does not demonstrate the perceived standard for masculinity (or, conversely, femininity, such as in Carrie), one is immediately ostracized. It’s nothing new. Oh, and Oskar just might be a young person in search of his queer identity.

Then, it seems almost too perfect a framework to use the vampire story (film or otherwise) as a way to examine adolescence. What’s interesting about vampirism and vampires are they are the monster that can best represent a multitude of ideas: The pain of immortality (and mortality), the cruelty of adolescence, the seductive quality of lust and sexuality, and loneliness. Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 film Let the Right One In (Låt den Rätte Komma In), based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, wraps the many themes into one, but keys into the romanticism of the vampire with an adolescent and queer edge.

The vampire has an extended history as a symbol or representation or image of queerness. There was the countess Elizabeth Bathory, infamous for allegedly bathing in the blood of her young mistresses as a way to preserve her youth. There was the story “Carmilla” by J. Sheridan LeFanu published in 1871 about a lesbian vampire. And, while the queer content isn’t necessarily explicit, Bram Stoker’s seminal Dracula nonetheless flows with queer subtext, notably Count Dracula’s mistresses. (This subtext was basically made text in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which the vampire mistresses appear to be lascivious and bisexual.) In film, there was 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter and, certainly, The Hunger in 1983 (starring queer icon David Bowie).

But all of these examples involve adults. Vampires, by nature, are heavy in exploring sexuality, but it appears to be difficult to do that with younger characters. It’s difficult to explore the sexuality of younger characters in general, because there ends up being a fine line between examination of such and exploitation or sexualization (ahem, Dark Shadows).

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Which brings us to Let the Right One In. Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is bullied fairly harshly on implicit grounds: he doesn’t fit the norm of what a child should do or act his age. He’s puny and weak and a superb target for others stronger than he to assert their power. What’s interesting about this characterization is that, though he can be read as a young queer character in search for his identity, he doesn’t particularly deviate from the norm either. He’s bookish, but that in itself doesn’t have any particular sensibilities one way or the other. The anti-social nature of his character does align with representations of young, withdrawn queer youths, but again, it’s not him outright eschewing what the norm is. In “secret”, he has a knife. He stabs a tree, using the same language used against him to demean his imaginary attackers in the dead of night. He shouts, “Squeal!” recalling scenes from Deliverance. Typical of any youth trying to stand up for themselves, especially young queer boys that don’t necessarily fit the so-called ideal, Oskar’s understanding of asserting his masculinity is through violence.

And why shouldn’t it be? That’s how he has learned from his peers. The ones that mock and torment him are either his age or a little older and their versions of manifesting masculinity is through violence. It is, for them, their source of power. There’s a hint of irony that the physical abuse is (ever so hypothetically) fought back with a knife, a deliberately phallic object (that is, admittedly, never used).

But the bullying isn’t necessarily the only thing that makes him feel alienated. There’s nothing that really sets him apart in his environment. He seems to be actively searching for who he is through the music he listens to, through the mimicry of violence and perceived power and masculinity. He doesn’t really understand who he is. Until Eli comes along.

large let the right one in blu-ray4Eli (played by Lina Leandersson and voiced by Elif Ceylan) is a young person who has moved next door. (For the sake of sensitivity, I will refer to Eli by either their name or by gender neutral pronouns.) Eli is also an alienated youth. Though Eli doesn’t attend school, Eli doesn’t really have a ‘home’ in the traditional sense of the word, given the fact that Eli and their ‘Father’ live a rather nomadic lifestyle. Eli is also a vampire, the constant travelling around and lack of any real foundation resulting in a similar kind of alienation from people as Oskar.

The two become close in that fragile, honest way that children (arguably) start to become fond of one another. It’s easiest, then, to view these characters as children. They’re both on the cusp of maturity, but not quite there. They don’t even fit the pubescent confusion of that song from A Chorus Line (“Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love”). It’s two isolated people in an isolated world finding each other.

Where vampirism as queer metaphor comes in is Eli’s backstory, which is only ever alluded to in the film. Oskar is impressively upfront about his desires for Eli, asking bluntly, “Eli, can you and I be together?” Given the fact that Oskar’s primary character trait is that complete lack of confidence and avoidance of confrontation, it’s incredibly touching and sweet that it’s this person (so to speak) with whom he feels comfortable enough to expose himself emotionally to. He continues, “Will you be my girlfriend?” Eli replies, “Oskar, I’m not a girl.” Oskar reacts, saying, “You’re not? [pause] Can we be together?” And that’s it. It doesn’t matter to him.

It seems almost naïve and silly thinking that a young boy being apathetic about the gender of person they have feelings for, but given both the environment he inhabits, where one’s gender must be greatly backed up by their actions (sort of like a childish version of gender essentialism), and the society of the American audience watching (yes, Sweden is significantly more progressive, which is why I’m talking about American audiences), that total and naked appreciation of Eli as a person is stunning and refreshing. The culture around us so often hands us perpetuated ideas and narratives where cisgender people are the only ones worth anything. We forget that there are young people, younger than even people who will probably read this small piece, for whom that kind of indoctrination hasn’t had an effect.

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And the romance they form is achingly beautiful. It seems, against all odds, as pure as the snow that coats Stockholm. It’s sweet and honest. Part of its beauty, I think, comes from that childlike nature, that innocence that only children seem to possess. Eli, also, seems withdrawn, someone for whom romance is equally foreign. It’s in these moments that the film nails every romantic and emotional beat, undoubtedly aided by gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (Her) and a splendid score by Johan Söderqvist. It’s as if those feelings are articulated explicitly through the frames and music. It is as utterly intoxicating and dizzyingly beautiful as the central romance.

This kind of revelation is downplaying the film, as far as I can tell, in comparison to the book (which I have not read). Eli’s backstory involves the fact that they lived as a young boy until they were castrated by a vampire nobleman. In the film, it’s boiled down to a shot of Eli’s crotch, featuring a scar. In the book, the revelation of Eli’s more complicated gender identity is, as far as I can tell, treated more akin to the revelation in The Crying Game, in an exploitative way. It makes Oskar’s acceptance seem more token. The character is presented as fairly androgynous in the film, though leaning slightly more towards the feminine (Eli wears colors which are more pastel and traditionally feminine at times), which sort of makes sense with a) a cisfemale actress playing the character and b) an admittedly annoying foil like bifurcation between the hypothetical partners being masculine and feminine. But the characters are ambiguous enough in terms of the presentation that it’s primarily a non-issue. Eli’s voice also walks a fine line, again being presented as more ambiguous in terms of any gender coding. By dialing back this, to be crude, story reversal concerning Eli, that naked innocence is better in focus.

At the end of the film, Oskar and Eli are on a train to nowhere.  They abandon the society that refuses to accept them and go on to presumably live on their own together. It’s a bitter sweet sentiment, at once empowering in its separatist leanings, but deeply melancholy in the fact that neither of them were accepted as who they were, scars and all. They don’t fit into their society’s ideas of what should be. It’s still a topic of debate within the queer community whether acceptance is at its heart pandering or whether it is truly acceptance. Does acceptance and assimilation mean that that Oskar and Eli, or the queer community, would have to mute their own expressions of living? It also seems especially sad that these children are essentially hoisted out of that society, never having done anything wrong. There’s a smile on Oskar’s face, but even he knows the future is uncertain. But at least there’s Eli. Eli, the Vampire, the person, is all that Oskar has been looking for. Someone as adrift as he, someone as tender and warm. As Alexander McQueen said, “There’s blood underneath every layer of skin.”

One thought on “Same Blood: ‘Let the Right One In’ and Young Queerness

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