Let the Right One In: The company of children by Matthew Krause

This piece was originally posted by Matt Krause on his blog on February 7, 2010. It has since disappeared from its original location. However, I had liked it enough to start a forum thread about it. Matt has kindly allowed me to repost his article here.

I was on one of those message boards they have on IMDb, where people can post topics and start online discussions about the movies they love. On a board devoted to the Swedish film Let the Right One In, which I and many others have dubbed “Twilight for grown-ups,” one of the adult men opened a thread where he admitted a strong attraction to actress Lina Leandersson, who plays the child vampire Eli and was herself 12 years old at the time of shooting. “I’ve never felt this before,” the man said. “Is something wrong with me?”

At once, other posters on the board called this man out, labeling him a pervert and a pedophile. I refrained from posting anything myself, but I do admit sharing the sentiments of the others on the board … at first. It was only when I reflected a bit on the film (which is one of my favorites) and the startling performance by Lina Leandersson that I began to at least appreciate what I believe the man meant to write but failed to articulate.

First of all, I cannot speak for an anonymous poster on a message board, but I can speak for myself. And before I turn my attention to the young Ms. Leandersson, let me explain what I find attractive when it comes to women in movies.

I am not really one to fall into the mainstream male’s obsession with sex goddesses. There are many actresses out there who are indeed beautiful, but I personally find few of them attractive in the sense that I lie awake pining for them. I am not aroused by actresses because of the way they look; I am instead aroused by the characters they play.

For instance, I’m not really turned on by Meg Ryan, although I do think she is beautiful, but I am extremely turned on by Sally Albright, the character she plays in When Harry Met Sally. I do not know Meg Ryan well enough to know if I would like her, but she is a talented attress and gives such a charming and honest performance in this film that I do feel that I know Sally Albright. As such, when I first saw When Harry Met Sally back in college, I actually pined for Sally Albright, wishing–nay, praying–that a girl like her would come into my life some day.

Who else has turned me on in movies?

I like Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ms. Allen is cute as a button anyway, but Marion is the kind of woman I’ve always found attractive–tough, resourceful, minimal bullshit, but not so strong-willed that she forgets how to be a woman (ironically, she is a lot like my wife). I always thought Indy was a schmuck for letting her get away, and one of the reasons I was one of the ten or so people who liked the most recent Indiana Jones movie was because Marion returned and Indy finally did right by her.

Who else?

Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) in Poltergeist. When her children are in peril near the end and her maternal instinct turns her into this primal creature sprinting down the hall to save her, I get chills all over my body.

Tracy Di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. James Bond always has his pick of the most beautiful women in the world, but there’s something about Tracy that makes him want to settle down, and Ms. Rigg does a wonderful job of letting the rest of us see just what that “something” is.

Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton) in the TV series Beauty and the Beast. A smart, principled woman with reserves of tenderness that allow her to see past Vincent’s beastly appearance to the soul of a poet that lies beneath. I longed for a woman who saw me that way (and found her the day I met my wife). Sadly, Ms. Hamilton eschews her more feminine side as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, making me forget Catherine all to quickly.

Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca. There is no question Ingrid Bergman is beautiful, and I have enjoyed her in many, many films. Ilsa Lund is the only character she has played that I would like to have known personally, and I still get a bit weepy at the end of this film, sensing deeply just how great a sacrifice it is for Rick to let her go.

All of this goes to illustrate what I think is often overlooked in most sex symbols. When it comes to celebrities, we don’t fall in love with the people themselves; we fall in love with their personas. One of the reason I’ve never gotten all moist for Angelina Jolie as a sex symbol is because she hasn’t played a character that excited me sexually since Playing By Heart. Oh, I think she is gorgeous and extremely talented, and I admire her philanthropic spirit, but while I’ve liked many of her movies, she seldom plays a character I would want to date (although some of her characters might be my good friends). I like people and all of their intricacies. When I go to a movie, I am not paying just to see a certain actor or actress; rather, I am wagering the price of a ticket that I might get to experience that wonderful moment when a talented performer meets a well-written character and manages to make movie magic (something Meryl Streep seems to do almost effortlessly).

So … back to this issue of 12-year-old Lina Leandersson and the message board poster who found her so attractive.

Let’s get this much out of the way: Lina Leandersson is a lovely little girl. She turns 15 this year and is showing signs of blossoming into a beautiful young woman. But at this point, she is still an adolescent, and at the time she made Let the Right One In she was very much a child, a little girl.

I do not think our mysterious poster is harboring the thoughts of a pederast where Lina Leandersson is concerned. Rather, I think that Eli, the character she plays, touched something in his heart as it did mine, and like me he has found the character to be haunting and unforgettable. There is something very appealing about Eli and yet something very tragic, and that is what makes her so unique and Lina Leandersson’s performance so special.

For those of you who have not seen Let the Right One In, it is a love story of sorts between two lonely creatures: A 12-year-old boy named Oskar (Kare Hedebrandt) who is so brutally bullied at school that he retreats into homicidal revenge fantasies; and Eli, who appears to be a 12-year-old girl but is really a 200-year-old creature of the night (there is more to her than her vampirism, but that is one of the movies best-kept secrets). What starts out as a series of casual conversations in the playground outside their block flats grows into a cautious friendship, arousing within Oskar and Eli a hunger for human connection.

It must be stated that Eli is not a sexualized creature for reasons that go well beyond her vamprism. However, because of her unique situation, she has been forced to call upon her sexuality numerous times in order to survive. Although an immortal, Eli still has the same vulnerabilities as other vampires, such as not being able to come out in the daylight (she won’t sparkle like Edward Cullen; she’ll burst into flames). At the same time, she is still trapped in the body of a child. Finding a place to sleep and an adult to protect her is no easy task.

As such, when we first meet Eli, she is traveling with Hakan (Per Ragnar), a broken, withered old man with the kind of unhealthy appetites that might turn our stomach. Hakan clearly desires Eli (in the book, he believes he is in love with her), and Eli keeps him at bay with the promise of sexual favors provided he do her bidding. This bidding not only entails proofing their apartment from the sun and guarding Eli during the day, but also the unsavory task of stalking and murdering victims for Eli, draining their blood so she does not have to go on the hunt herself (the main reason for this is so that Eli will not go out and create other vampires, but when she is forced to do her own hunting, she violently twists her victim’s head off after feeding before she can infect the entire body).

As unsettling as this may sound, the film is actually quite beautiful, handling its more violent elements with grace and aesthetic distance while keeping its focus on this friendship between Oskar and Eli. Although she does awful things, Eli is not a monster but a fractured little soul who has forgtten how it feels to love and be loved. And although Oskar’s homocidal ideations are frightening at first, his eyes flicker with such loneliness that we realize he has not been lost just yet.

Let the Right One In resonated with me, and not just because I like horror movies. I found myself identifying with Oskar from the outset, sympathizing with him during his torment, longing to protect him from the evils of his life, and nodding with understanding when he stood alone in the playground, stabbing a tree with a knife and pretending it was one of his tormentors.

It was because of this connection that I totally welcomed Eli into the story. I saw Eli as Oskar saw her, and I sensed his great relief when he came to realize that there was another in the world who wanted to understand him. We have all craved this kind of intimacy in our lives at one time or another, but at the tender age of 12, that unsteady precipice before puberty, our desire for a connection is almost painful. I have friends I have known since grade school who all seemed so assured when we were Oskar’s age, and yet all of them have admitted that those years were marked by terror and loneliness.

What person wouldn’t be attracted to Eli? She is like that perfect invisible friend. When I was 12, I would have gone to the ends of the earth for someone like Eli to come into my life. In fact, while watching Let the Right One In, I was reminded of the scary stories my brothers told me when I was child, tales of a girl named Patty who had allegedly died in our house before we moved in and whose spirit now dwelt in our attic. Rather than being terrified, I imagined that Patty’s spirit would come down into my room at night to play with me.

That is what I thought when this film introduced me to Eli. Of course I was attracted to her, not as an unstable adult to a child, but as the fragile 12-year-old who sometimes still lives inside, a vulnerable little tike who would have loved to have a friend like Eli. As I said, I saw her through Oskar, and I sort of saw myself through both of them … an interesting idea as I think about it, because my most favorite passage of the book is about Oskar having a similar experience:

Eli turned her face to Oskar’s, said:

“I …”

Closed her mouth. Then pressed a kiss on Oskar’s lips.

For a few seconds, Oskar saw through Eli’s eyes. And what he saw was … himself. Only much better, more handsome, stronger than what he thought of himself. Seen with love.

For a few seconds.

There are fans of the book that find this to be one of the most beautiful passages they have ever read. It is many times more beautiful than anything I have read in Twilight. In a few short sentences, author John Ajvide Linqvist illustrates what it is that attracts us to another, that in fact makes us love then.

We see our best selves through their eyes.

I saw myself as Oskar while watching this film, saw myself through Eli’s eyes, and felt that intense connection to her well after the film had ended. That, I think, is what the message board poster was trying to say. Not that he lusted after a 12-year-old girl and wanted to do awful things to her. But that he remembered what it was like to be 12 years old, to be alone, to feel advancing changes of puberty on the horizon, and to look at someone your own age, feel those first pangs of attraction, and wonder how it would feel if the two of you were friends.

That doesn’t mean he is a pederast. That means that where he was concerned, the movie worked its magic. And isn’t magic what we’re all looking for anyway?