I have a great love for the country of Norway, land of most of my ancestors. I study its history, write novels about one of its heroes, and have learned to read the language well enough to translate it (on paper). The relatives I know over there are entirely genialt (as the Norwegians say). But one thing I do not expect from contemporary Norway is art that celebrates American values.
The Academy Award-nominated film, Elling (from 2001) is an exception. Or so it seems to me.
The Elling of the title is a middle-aged man who suffers from agoraphobia and fainting spells. He spent his early life living with his mother, and was placed in a mental institution after her death. While in the hospital he made one friend, a big, strong, somewhat simple fellow named Kjell Bjarne (first and middle name; Scandinavians tend to use both if they have them). Kjell Bjarne is obsessed with sex and extremely foul in his language (even in subtitles). However, as we soon learn, he’s entirely innocent in terms of actual experience with women.
The two are set up in an Oslo apartment, on a trial basis, by the social welfare authorities. If they can learn to function in the outside world, they are told, they’ll be given greater freedom.
If you’re a fan of the television series, “Monk,” you’ll recognize much of the atmosphere and humor. Elling and Kjell Bjarne are not objects of ridicule, but their obsessive, counterproductive responses to situations most people take for granted produce a good number of laughs, often uncomfortable ones. This is an amusing movie, rooted in realism, rather than an over-the-top farce.
One joke that Americans may or may not pick up on is that, although Elling is extremely puritanical in his sexual attitudes (he’s outraged when Kjell Bjarne takes up with a single, pregnant neighbor) he frequently declares his unwavering devotion to the socially free-wheeling Norwegian Liberal Party, “an infallible source of moral guidance.” Although he proclaims his desire to have a library in the apartment, he only owns (or reads) one book–a biography of Norway’s leftist prime minister, Gro Haarlem Bruntland.
But as he tentatively edges out into the world, Elling’s horizons broaden. He meets a lonely, widowed intellectual, who becomes his friend when they discover a shared contempt for modern poetry. Through this friend, he’s introduced to the film’s chief symbol of freedom–a big, classic American automobile. “The Americans are generous people,” says his friend, when Elling marvels at its roominess.
I didn’t appreciate the abundant profanity, which will offend many viewers. There is also the conventional Scandinavian attitude toward sex outside of marriage to watch out for.
But the more I think about it, the more I admire what seems to me its sly suggestion that all Norwegians are institutionalized under the current system, and need to take risks to be free. Rated R.
Lars Walker is the author of several fantasy novels, the most recent of which is West Oversea.