2001, R, 89 min. Directed by Peter Naess. Starring Per Christiansen, Sven Nordin, Per Christian Ellefsen.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 30, 2002
Mix moderate amounts of sugar and spice and you'll wind up with something like Norway's Elling, an odd-couple dramedy about two mentally quirky misfits trying to find their way in the world. It's easy to see why Elling was one of the nominees for last year's foreign film Oscar: This movie has the formula down -- you know, the Rain Man/My Left Foot pattern in which an individual overcomes a physical and/or mental limitation and becomes one of us, only wiser and more gifted. Elling (Ellefsen) and Kjell Bjarne (Nordin) are two middle-aged men who, having been roommates in a state mental facility, are paired together upon their release as flatmates in an apartment in Oslo where they must learn to fend for themselves, with only the guidance of a visiting social worker. Based on a bestselling Norwegian novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen, Elling is a wonderfully performed character study. Elling is a self-described “mama's boy,” who only leaves his house forcibly after her death. His prissy anxieties and nervousness makes an odd companion to Kjell Bjarne's unkempt, sex-starved oaf. Neither man has clearly defined medical diagnoses; Elling is afraid to answer the phone and use public toilets, Kjell Bjarne is a virgin at 40 and bangs his head against hard surfaces when frustrated. Elling stays far removed from clinical explanations, these two are simply oddballs about whom we're supposed to think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Were these actors' characterizations not so precisely honed and the comic pas de deux between them not so perfectly timed, Elling would slide into the sad abyss of quirky underdog films. The film's careful details, however, make it rise above the usual film of this type. We watch as Elling conquers his fears of going outside and learns to use the phone and go to a poetry reading, we root for Kjell Bjarne as he makes a connection with the pregnant single woman who lives upstairs. Despite the “realness” conveyed by these characters, the unreality of their situation undercuts the film's plausibility. Rather than real figures, Elling and Kjell Bjarne become symbolic characters whose actions are supposed to relate something about the naïf's encounter with the world. In the real world, however, these two would be eaten alive, and what kind of lesson would that be? This film shelters its misfits in as safe a berth as the hospital does. It's a cuckoo's nest that's nicely feathered.