The Year in Norwegian Cinema

I watch an unhealthy amount of movies every year, but despite a very manageable total annual output – 20-25 films – I’m not always fully updated on Norwegian cinema. The quality of our local movie industry has improved vastly over the last 10-15 years, both in terms of acting, writing, directing, international acclaim and even when it comes to diversity of genres and the experiences depicted. Director Joachim Trier (Reprise, Oslo, August 31st) is shooting his first American movie, Morten Tyldum (Buddy, Headhunters) could get an Oscar nod (if not a particularly well-deserved one) for directing The Imitation Game, and Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) are helming the next Pirates of the Carribean movie. So why am I still a skeptic?

I suppose the most important reason is that, with Norwegian cinema as with everything else, you have to trudge through a lot of mediocre stuff to get to the good. Only the best ones get to travel the world, and in the case of Rønning/Sandberg and Tyldum’s films, I didn’t really like them much in the first place. Even among the recent smaller festival favorites, like, say, North (Rune Denstad Langlo, 2009), The Bothersome Man (Jens Lien, 2005) and A Somewhat Gentle Man, I’ve found the quirkiness that probably made them feel fresh to international audiences to be a little cheap and predictable, at least in a Norwegian context, almost like they were partly custom-made to appeal to fans of a particular kind of Nordic black comedy.

This primer on my complicated relationship with Norwegian cinema doesn’t mean that all is lost. Judging by the handful of movies I saw from the 2014 crop, last year was actually quite good. Ole Giæver’s “stream-of-consciousness” comedy/drama Out of Nature  (no: Mot naturen) surprisingly did something fresh with the tired trope of male thirtysomethings feeling trapped in their romantic relationships, and the family movie Kule kids gråter ikke (Cool Kids Don’t Cry) captured its own truth about how kids deal with serious illness. That said, an adaptation of Beatles, a genuine classic in Norwegian coming-of-age literature fell completely flat. Norwegian movies have an impressive hold on the domestic box-office, but that’s almost exclusively due to a steady flow of family-friendly fare based on pre-existing properties. In addition to the two I’ve mentioned already, here are three more movies you should be keeping an eye out for if they’re ever made available internationally, either through streaming, or better yet, a theatrical release.

One Night in Oslo (Dir: Eirik Svensson)

Director Eirik Svensson, who debuted in 2013 with the formally inventive if ultimately not quite successful romantic drama Must Have Been Love, comes truly into his own with this finely tuned coming-of-age drama. Stripped of the grand gestures so often present in movies out to show their relevance and/or sociological ambitions, he tells a simple story that still manages to incorporate hormonal group dynamics, a love triangle and subtle reflections on socio-economic and geographical divides in today’s Oslo. Untrained but well-cast, the actors talk to and over one another, infusing the movie with a pulse and an energy that could be the product of a gifted director, or that they just inhabit their roles so completely. Either way, One Night in Oslo is one of the best Norwegian movies about young people I’ve ever seen. Because it’s not explicitly about The Immigrant Experience, it is also a very interesting, indirect reflection on that theme. (If you’re interested, there have been a handful of movies that touch upon it more or less directly, from Izzat (2005) and I am Yours (2013) to the coming-of-age drama Schpaaa (1998)).

Blind (Dir: Eskil Vogt)

Eskil Vogt co-wrote the screenplays for Reprise and Oslo, August 31st with Joachim Trier, and he brings that voice and flair for visually striking storytelling to his directorial debut, a (domestically) underseen festival favorite which took home a Sundance audience award. Unlike most other directors, Vogt reaches beyond the merely competent to use the camera in a way that upends our conventional ways of thinking, about movies or other things. I am not visually impaired, and so I don’t know whether Blind‘s depiction of living with that kind of disability is credible or not, but I was deeply fascinated by how the movie forced me to adjust my perspective in order to level with its main character. Vogt not only asks how a person who has lost her ability to see looks at the world, or how memories are affected by not being able to check them against anything physically verifiable;  he adjusts the movie’s rhythm and mode of storytelling to that specific experience. The humor of Blind comes from its wisdom, and in a great scene depicting how much preparation and precision goes into it when Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Pedersen) makes herself a cup of tea, he briefly kickstarted my belief in what cinema can do.

Det er meg du vil ha (literal translation: I’m The One You Want, directed by Dag Johan Haugerud)

At first glance, Det er meg du vil ha may seem almost like an anti-movie. For fifty minutes, a teacher (played by Andrea Bræin Hovig) talks directly to the camera about her illegal relationship with an underage student. A monologue of this length is usually the prerogative of the stage, not the screen. But the eye of the camera has one thing the perspective of the theater audience doesn’t have, and that is the ability to steer, or even force, the eye of the viewer. We are unable to capture what lies outside the frame, and thus we cannot look away, even if we want to. Bræin Hovig’s expressive, demanding performance is enhanced by being shot at a matter-of-fact medium range, and in other scenes they – at best – allow us to focus in on other details within the frame. The realization that this is one of the primary strengths of the cinematic medium is not new, as demonstrated by everyone from masters of the close-up like Carl Th. Dreyer and Robert Bresson to Lars von Trier, or the medium-range perfectionist Errol Morris, but it takes a special kind of guts, from director and actors alike, to trust the power of a form of storytelling as sparse as the one on display in Det er meg du vil ha. Challenging our fixed ideas about both morals and cinema, the result is engaging and encouraging.

 

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