Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them. This episode: Norway, Finland and Sweden, June 2016.
The titles of these things tend to be racially insensitive at the best of times, but this is even worse than usual. For a start, there’s nothing Mexican to be seen here at all: this is another one of those multi-country compilation affairs, this time taking three of the Nordic nations and comparing their recent movies against each other. Additionally, one of those nations is Finland, and they’re quite adamant that they’re not part of Scandinavia at all, instead revelling in their identity as a European nation much like we currently aren’t. Still, put all that aside and here’s what we’ve got – one movie each from Norway, Sweden and Finland, watched in rapid succession during a recent jaunt between the three countries. Which is best? There’s only one way to find out.
Let’s start in Oslo, to see what Norwegian cinema has to offer us at the moment. Looking at the rather effective site run by national distributor Nordisk Film Kino, there’s a drama called Alt det vakre, but its generic poster image doesn’t really give you anything to latch onto. The other local offering is called Pyromanen, and has a poster image of a young man standing in front of shitloads of fire just in case you thought you’d misunderstood the title. Which would you choose? Well, exactly.
The young man in the poster is Dag (Trond Nilssen): he and his father jointly run the decaying but efficient fire service for a small Norwegian town. There are, however, two problems with this arrangement. Firstly, dad’s declining health is affecting his ability to do the job. Secondly, Dag is secretly responsible for starting all of the fires they’re currently putting out. As my viewing companion The Belated Birthday Girl pointed out, a combination of dense forestry and wooden housing makes Norway one of the most flammable countries in the world, so it’s not really surprising that nobody makes the connection with Dag. But sooner or later, somebody’s going to.
The lack of comprehensible dialogue isn’t an issue at all – in fact, both the opening and closing scenes provide a hefty emotional whack without a single word being spoken in either. The main thrust of the story is as elemental as fire himself: Dag’s a Neurotic Boy Outsider of the old school, whose reaction to the increasing problems of adolescence is to light bigger and bigger blazes. You just know that eventually, a girl’s going to dump him, and no amount of asbestos will be able to contain that one. This could so easily collapse into Dag channelling Beavis and yelling FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! at the top of his lungs, but Nilssen’s performance is brilliantly internalised, keeping the torment just under the surface until absolutely necessary.
Director Erik Skjoldbjærg (who’s also responsible for the original pre-Nolan version of Insomnia) has a large part to play in this restraint too, letting the extraordinary sound design do a lot of the heavy lifting. For example, a key sound from the first time Dag’s plans go wrong becomes a discreet undertone during the fires he sets after that. The visual depiction of the fires is generally impressive – Skjoldbjærg seems to have largely gone for practical effects, with the odd bit of computer enhancement. Sadly, the one misstep in this regard is the opening flashforward, set up to ensure that the film begins with shots of its most apocalyptic conflagration. So apocalyptic, in fact, that they’ve had to use largely unconvincing CGI shots, rather than set a real house on fire and put expendable old people in the middle of it. That quibble aside, Pyromanen is a tightly controlled melodrama, and well worth a look if it ever makes it outside its home territory.
In Finland, meanwhile, they still have a fondness for the old stories. One of their classics, Vihainen Linnut – literally, The Birds Of Anger – is currently tearing up the local box office in a variety of versions, including an unexpected English dub. For audiences requiring something a little more of-the-moment, there’s Onnenonkija, a romantic comedy about a lifestyle blogger. Her name’s Marja (played by Minka Kuustonen, previously noted here for playing ‘the blonde one’ in Kesäkaverit), and she’s so dedicated to her job that she’s literally followed around by a cloud of hashtags, like flies gathering round dog dirt. She gets lots of hits, sure: but as any MostlyFilm employee will tell you, that shit don’t pay the bills, particularly when you’re still living with your parents. Her sister gets Marja a serving job at a paper tycoon’s house, where she’s surprised to meet up with a delivery man she accidentally rear-ended a day or two earlier. The delivery man is in fact Olavi (Olavi Uusivirta), the wayward son of the family, who’s basically deserted them to go slumming it for a couple of years.
Poor spoilt girl meets rich spoilt boy. You know where this is going. Having said that, it’s quite an achievement to construct any sort of romance out of two massively unlikeable people – the only way director Ville Jankeri can get you to root for them at all is by making the people they hang out with even worse than they are. All this makes for unappealing cringe comedy, most notably in the centrepiece of the film, a first date where each of them appears to be actively trying to make the other feel as uncomfortable as possible.
If you’re watching Onnenonkija in the city of Turku, as we were, then at least there are enough local references to keep things interesting: the use of a Föli travelcard as a plot point (yeah, see, that picture at the top of the page is relevant), or the scene where she’s trying to buy dinner at posh restaurant Smör with what looks like a 100 euro Groupon. (Meanwhile, The BBG is screaming at the screen “E. Ekblom down the road does a three course set for €30, you nitwit.”) Eventually some sort of resolution is achieved, though it’s as unsatisfactory as you’d expect: Marja’s blogging becomes less self-centred, while Olavi is accepted back into the family when he steals Marja’s idea for a new type of toilet paper. Without wishing to spoil the ending, wouldn’t it leave ink all over your arse?
We finish up in Sweden, where my traditional problem with trying to pronounce foreign titles to confused box office staff is less of an issue when it comes to Sophelikoptern – which, it’s implied for large parts of the film, may not exist in the language at all as anything other than a possible answer to a particularly cryptic crossword clue. If it means anything, it means The Garbage Helicopter, which is the title under which it’s been touring the world film festival circuit for the last year or so, before getting a belated domestic release. I missed its run at the London Film Festival – having seen it under Monoglot Movie Club conditions, I’m kind of regretting that now, because it’s the best film I saw on this Nordic expedition.
The plot, such as it is, is this. An old woman wants her clock back from the repair shop. She phones her relatives to ask for it. Two of them pick it up from the shop, then collect a third one to help navigate the 103 mile car journey to deliver it. Incidents follow, filmed in a ridiculously precise style – with a couple of notable exceptions, every scene is a single take, shot with a locked-down camera, with cuts to black at each end. There’s a car accident. There’s an unexpected bout of street racing. There’s the first use in the history of cinema of Chekhov’s Bubble Wrap.
Writer/director Jonas Selberg Augustsén knows full well he’ll be hit with the criticism of making a film that’s all style and no substance, and counters this by simply making the style as jaw-dropping as possible. The reference points are obvious: early Jim Jarmusch for the black-and-white, rambly, road movie elements, and fellow Swede Roy Andersson for the geometric precision of the gags and the ridiculous lengths used to achieve them. (The opening shot, in particular, is ravishing, hilarious and inexplicable all at the same time.) The road trip is given structure by a series of repeated motifs: long shots of the car zipping from one side of the widescreen frame to the other at high speed, the frequent stops to look at oversized objects placed by the side of the road. Besides, you could argue that there’s some substance in the unspoken fact that the family is of Roma origin – unspoken, that is, apart from every interaction with a stranger starting with them being addressed in English and having to wearily reply “vi pratar Svenska.”
It’s one of those films that takes time to feel your way into, I suspect, and it’s quite possible that some people may not make it that far. But by the time you get to the climax, in which the symbolism of the garbage helicopter is finally explained – or maybe it isn’t; after all, vi pratar inte Svenska – you’ll know you’ve seen a film that draws on multiple obvious sources and combines them into something that’s wholly itself. It’s very consciously an art film, but it’s relentlessly entertaining from start to finish. So, there’s your answer to the question I posed at the start: Sweden wins, although it had to rely on immigrant labour in order to achieve that.