Naess's second comedy has been described as a Nordic Rain Man and could yet be a rare international success for a Norwegian film. Johan Åhlund looks at it.
Peter Naess's latest film, the comedy Elling (2001), tells the story of two middle-aged men who share a room at a Norwegian treatment-centre for socially maladjusted people. The management has decided that they should be given a chance to prove that they can live on their own. If it works, they will be allowed to have their own apartment together in central Oslo.
This proves to be a great challenge for Elling and Kjell-Bjarne, who have lived in an institutionalised environment for many years. The overprotected Elling is haunted by his own two enemies: anxiety and repentance. For Elling with his social phobia, such small tasks as walking through a restaurant is as complicated as a trip to the moon. Using a public lavatory is also a great obstacle at first.
When Elling's overprotective mother died, he was taken to the treatment-centre where he met the energetic, slightly autistic and constantly eating Kjell-Bjarne. Kjell-Bjarne, on the other hand, comes from a home broken by alcoholism. He is physically strong and good at working with his hands, at least when he is not carrying around Elling on his shoulders. On top of that he is virtually obsessed with women.
These two characters take the train to Oslo where their new friend and social secretary Frank Åsli awaits. He takes them to the apartment and shows them around their new home. Frank explains that the apartment is theirs if they can adapt themselves and live a normal life together. Now they are on their own. All simple tasks in life must be handled without any help from others. This means shopping, cooking and answering the phone. Things not that easy if you are an overprotected, socially handicapped, middle-aged Norwegian man called Elling.
Getting into the characters
Norwegian actor Per Christian Ellefsen brilliantly plays the socially handicapped Elling. Ellefsen has worked at the Oslo National Theatre since 1996. Before that he worked at Oslo Nye Theatre for 16 years, playing a wide variety of different characters, such as the Idiot in the play based on Dostoevsky's novel and Ibsen's Peer Gynt.
The role of the energetic Kjell-Bjarne is also impressively acted by Sven Nordin, a highly acclaimed actor in Norway who often mixes stage work with television. He has played Romeo in Romeo And Juliet and Richard III, among other characters.
One watches with great pleasure as these characters adapt themselves into their new environment, laughing along with them rather than at them. It also has a more serious side, for example about how to handle loneliness and how to cope with male friendship. The characters evolve, and both Elling and Kjell-Bjarne gain new confidence as time goes by. They also make friends with others, which forces them to face the loss of their own friendship.
This is especially poignant when Kjell-Bjarne falls in love with a pregnant female neighbour. Kjell-Bjarne's technical skills and handiwork also come in handy when he gets permission to renovate the old American car of one of Elling's new friends. Elling, by contrast, is drawn to poetry. He joins a poetry meeting when he meets an older man, a well-known poet. This new friendship encourages Elling to write his own poems.
A Nordic hit
Elling is Naess' second feature film, after his debut Absolut BlåMandag (1999), and is based on the popular books by author Ingvar Ambjörnsen (most of the film comes from his third book Brödre i blodet [Blood brothers, 1996]). Naess has worked as an instructor at Oslos Nye Theatre since 1997 and has been highly acclaimed for his stage show called Elling and Kjell-Bjarne, a play that toured in many Norwegian cities, selling over 60,000 tickets.
Films made in Norway have not received much acclaim abroad, but Elling is a film that will probably change this phenomenon. It was a huge success in both Sweden and Norway, having sold over 700,000 tickets in Norway alone since its premiere in March 2001 (an impressive figure in a country of only 4.5 million). The film also won a prize at the Stockholm Film Festival last year and was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign language category. This past spring, Elling received the best film award at the Seattle International Film Festival.
All this is not bad for a film that has been called a Nordic light-version of Rain Man. The Norwegian newspaper Verldens Gang reports that American actor Kevin Spacey was so impressed that he signed a contract to co-produce and act in an American remake. Spacey's own film company Trigger Street will produce it, together with Icelandic producer John Sighvatsson, producer of such films as Wild At Heart and K-19 The Widowmaker. This is clear testament to the beauty of Naess's film about courage, friendship and how to defy your own fears.
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