By Guilhem Caillard.
A look at two striking films presented at this year’s 35th Göteborg International Film Festival (Sweden).
Known for its emphasis on Nordic cinema, the Göteborg International Film Festival, which celebrated its 35th anniversary this year, has once again lived up to its reputation. Among the eight feature-length fictional films competing in the Nordic section, the majority also have in common that they are set in the more or less recent past. Two films in particular are noteworthy for their introspective look at the 1980s: The Orheim Company from the Norwegian director Arild Andresen, winner of this year’s prestigious Dragon Award, and Either Way, an Icelandic film directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson.
In the first film, we follow the story of young Jarle Klepp in Norway. Despite a cultural profusion, represented for example by the popularity of British rock groups, the years in which the teen lives are marked by a lack of a coherent identity. The director makes it clear that the 1980s in Norway were not up to the level of the social, cultural and political revolutions of the preceding decade. 1968 is long past, and the Norwegian society in which Jarle is growing up seems to have fallen into a stupor since then. From his school filled with the suburban petty bourgeoisie to the intimacy of his family life, everything is mind-numbingly stultified. Here, the film is faithful to its source, the autobiographical novel by Tore Renberg, which made much of this point; Arild Andresen puts it in the forefront of his film. Jarle’s father, born a few years before the Second World War and now reaching 40, nurtures an obsessive passion for the activities of the Norwegian Resistance, his own father having supposedly participated in several acts of sabotage against the Nazis. In the moments they spend together, Jarle must face the rejection of a father who is hostile to the contemporary interests, especially musical, of his son who, on the eve of the Live Aid Concert that brought together the most popular singers of the time (David Bowie, The Cure, etc.), is overflowing with admiration for these musical icons.
Jarle’s father is above all a notorious alcoholic whose condition visibly worsens with every passing day. Unpredictable in nature, he spends long hours sitting in his armchair, dark circles under his eyes and a bottle in his hand, then wakes up the next day after having beaten his wife only to repeat, in his moments of sobriety, his outdated and reactionary ideas that border on extremism. What is remarkable in The Orheim Company is not this way of alternating between the two states, which is nothing new – especially since we know the man is doomed – but rather the attempts to save him on the part of a son who is helpless in the face of such deterioration. Jarle allows himself to be dragged into the endless recitations of the glory of the Norwegian Resistance, a passive listener at a loss for what to do, next to his submissive and powerless mother.
Because it is easy to draw parallels between the father’s cherished Resistance and the very essence of his condition – destined to fail – there is little opportunity for originality. But The Orheim Company seeks above all to illustrate the place of the front-line victims who witness this downward spiral. The film reaches a climax when the alcoholic father, in a final attempt to get himself together, organizes an interminable family hike in the footsteps of the Resistance fighters. Several years later, the only reminder of this little adventure is a family photo showing Jarle and his mother, haggard and worn down by the doggedness of a man who is aware on some level that he is struggling with the impossible. The narrative style of The Orheim Company is nonetheless a drawback, despite the flashback form of the film, causing the viewer to regret the absence of more abstract sequences that might have enhanced the songs of Phil Collins or Paul McCartney and raised them above the level of simple background music. For a prime example of this, you have to go next door to see Sons of Norway, which in fact has much in common with Arild Andresen’s film.
In Either Way, the 1980s are merely a part of a more or less well-defined decor, light-years away from Sons of Norway or The Orheim Company, which pile on as many cultural and historic symbols of the decade as possible. Either Way is a film that avoids all such references. Only a brief reference to the period at the beginning of the film – “1980-something” – introduces the humorous tone used by the writer and director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson in this, his first feature-length film. There are also the clothes worn by the main characters, Finnbogi and Alfred, and several musical numbers that seem to come out of nowhere. But you get the sense that it is only a pretext in the eyes of the filmmaker, perhaps a whim. All in all, Either Way appears to be trying to go back, in a rather abstract manner, to what the author felt during his youth. Yet it doesn’t matter; the fact is that it works, and the spectator goes along with it without looking for justification. It is a fable, situated somewhere in the 1980s, in the middle of a desert region.
The film takes place in Iceland with two characters who are friends, colleagues and companions in adversity. They don’t seem to have grasped the point of the job that has been assigned to them – repaint the markings on a semi-deserted country road – and this is probably the funniest part. Finnbogi, the elder of the two, at first appears to be self-assured, confident and proud of his wholesome and stable family situation. The young and arrogant Alfred is his opposite, a mediocre ladies’ man and confirmed city-dweller whose only desire is to return to town and a life of one-night stands. Throughout their work days, which are spent installing roadside posts and transporting buckets of paint for the road markings, the older and seemingly wiser man advises his younger colleague and responds to his uncertainties. But soon, a major event turns this state of things on its head, and the less experienced one of the two becomes a mentor for the other. Either Way relates the misadventures of two road painters who, at a certain point in their lives, run off the road and find themselves in such a state of questioning that they have difficulty getting back on track. While at first it is interesting how the film plays on this situation, it quickly becomes repetitive and would benefit from some touching up.
Nevertheless, its weak points are compensated by the very singularity of Either Way. Rarely has cinema seen an initiation tale bordering on the burlesque and set in such an unusual place as the Icelandic plains (recalling certain shots from Breaking the Waves, but only just). There is also a trucker who seems to be the sole person using this road belonging to our two protagonists: several times during the story, he makes an appearance, stops to talk to the workers, offers them something to drink, then gets back on the road to who-knows-where. His uncouth, even vulgar, side adds to the incongruity of the situation, all the more so because his appearances precede one of Finnbogi and Alfred’s misadventures. The trucker thus becomes a sort of spiritual guide and, as soon as he departs, viewers find themselves wishing he would come back; it is sometimes gratuitous and justly humorous, exactly as Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson intended to make this tragicomedy on solitude stand out. The filmmaker remembers being at first surprised, then complimented, by an enthusiastic viewer who told him, “It’s like Kiarostami meets Dumb and Dumber!” It is precisely at this level that the film places itself, and the Nordic première of Either Way will remain one of the highlights of this Göteborg International Film Festival.
Guilhem Caillard is currently Director of communications at Panorama-cinéma (www.panorama-cinema.com), a Canadian magazine which features critical reviews and in-depth analysis of mainstream and independent filmmaking. He also publishes frequent reviews and interviews as a critic for the same magazine as well as for other publications. In addition, Guilhem is a programmer coordinator and programmer at the Cinemania Francophone Film Festival of Montreal. He was also involved in film programming at the Cinémathèque québécoise and conducted a study focussing on audiences attending screening programmes. He recently contributed to Vies et morts du Giallo, de 1963 à nos jours, the first French-language book ever published on the Giallo Italian genre. In the past, Guilhem took part to a number of cultural events in France, such as the Montpellier International Festival of Mediterranean Film and the Avignon Festival. Holding diplomas in Film Studies and in Cultural Development, Guilhem’s main interests are film genres, the international film festival circuit, and the economy of the filmmaking industry.