Sunday, November 18, 2007

Norwegian Goods

Okay seriously, when was the last time you had some Norwegian? I mean film, not cuisine, whatever that might be. I have to go all the way back to Pål Sletaune’s 1997 fun break-out caper Junk Mail (Budbringeren). But after seeing the striking pair of recent Norwegian films that Mongrel Media’s released on DVD—one of which happens to be executive produced by Sletaune—I’m feeling like I’ve been completely missing the development of a vibrant national cinema for the last ten years.

REPRISE is the feature debut of director Joachim Trier, written by Trier and Eskil Vogt. It begins with two young friends, aspiring novelists both, marching gleefully to the same mail box at the same moment to post their claims to literary glory. At this tender point in their lives they move in almost perfect unity, two bright young men daring to spark a new wave. But it’s this very point that will finally mark their separation.

One of the pair, Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie), will rocket to fame, only to plunge into debilitating mental illness and perpetual writer’s block soon after. The other, prettier one, Erik (Espen Klouman-Hoiner) will have his efforts initially met with indifference, eventually deemed publishable, and subsequently the subject of some debate as to its genuine merits. They and their mostly male friends amble from youth to adulthood, moving in and out of the same circles—Oslo has a population of only 500 000, after all—and struggle with compromise. It’s an old story, yet Trier, while dusting off a lot of narrative techniques gleaned from here and there—especially the French New Wave—brings some genuine freshness to it, not to mention fresh memories of young adulthood.

Reprise is a film of backward glances, of zealous ambition giving way to longing for things lost, of the creeping desire to recapture a certain innocence. Using a Godardian voice-over device that makes us privy to possible futures, inner conflicts and little histories of passers-by, it clips by quite well, buoyed by a flurry of well-handled hand-held images and gorgeous Scandinavian light, a skilful montage that constantly layers every moment of present time with the clinging memories that intercept its flow. I can’t honestly say that the emotional depth of the film is entirely the equal to the preternatural fluidity of the technique, but it should be marked as an impressive debut nonetheless.

The other film released by Mongrel, THE BOTHERSOME MAN (Den Brysomme mannen), directed by Jens Lien and written by Per Schreiner, is a very different beast, a terrifically mysterious, smart, bleakly comic oddity that might irritate a few impatient viewers for the mannerisms inherent in its premise, but with which I had a good time and enjoyed pondering afterward. It opens with a couple engaged in the most disturbing-looking make-out session I think I’ve ever seen on film, one that drives an on-looker to suicidal despair, and, eventually, to some vaguely futuristic Norway where all is clean, quiet, content and totally fucked. Other than my wondering why a guy dressed kinda like Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas was on the back cover, I had no idea what I was in store for when I popped The Bothersome Man into the player, and ideally neither should you, so forgive me if I keep this on the cagey side.

I think it’s a sign of The Bothersome Man’s strength that, though it’s adapted from a radio play, so much of it plays out in silence. Cloudy-haired, perpetually semi-shocked-looking Andreas (Trond Fausa Aurvaag, whose previous credits include, you guessed it, Junk Mail) begins a new life with what seems like a good white-collar job with pleasant, civilized coworkers. But something about all this just doesn’t seem right. Things come too easy. Getting laid is a no-brainer. The crime rate has slipped to nil. Children seem not to exist. Bloody accidents barely provoke a shrug. But Andreas receives a hint that he’s not alone in his discomfort here: some unseen guy parked in the john in a bar concedes that life in this place has lost something essential, that “hot chocolate, pussy and burgers” just don’t taste like they used to.

Wherever it is that Andreas has landed, it feels distinctly like the aesthetic of Scandinavian design has been taken to some horrific, perfectly disaffected extreme, while the evolution of consumer society has arguably reached its natural conclusion. What counts here is that besides giving us the pleasure of tracking an unfolding mystery and getting caught off guard by some absurd, chilly humour, the world Andreas finds himself trapped in is in every way a reflection of the one we live in. If you’ve ever had nightmares about IKEA, this is the film you’ve been waiting for.

No comments: