Tommaso Tocci is an Italian freelance film critic currently based in Paris. He regularly covers the European festival circuit writing for Italian and international publications. He is a programmer for the Saas-Fee Film Festival and has worked for Berlinale Talents and the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Venice 2019: Dag Johan Haugerud’s second full feature film Barn («Beware of Children») made waves internationally long before its premiere at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, where it was screened as part of the Giornate degli Autori sidebar. Its rumored Cannes selection and subsequent associations with festivals throughout the summer means it came with a higher level of expectations.
The question was, what could be so special about this dialogue-heavy drama about people negotiating blame and repercussions in the aftermath of a tragic daily-life accident? One could argue it’s something that festival audiences have seen a fair bit already in Norwegian cinema, as recently as a few months ago with Tuva Novotny’s Blind Spot (2018).
Set in Oslo, focused on middle-upper class families and by definition concerned with notions of normalcy and application of codes, Barn is the kind of film that is difficult to make a breakthrough of. Only the running time, at an outsized 157 minutes, indicated that something else was going on, and that the story of a random death in a school courtyard could in fact be the springboard for crafting an essay on the human condition; a work that considers carefully the impact of words, dialogue and communication, and does so by breaking down the very concept of a conversation before building it back up.
And yet the film is disguised as something different, or at least feigns being beholden to the idea of grief to a much greater extent than it actually is. It would be a disservice to call it merely a dissection of a tragedy, which it still is, of course – a painstaking, meticulous one at that. The initial accident is positioned front and center, worthy of occupying with a certain gravitas the first sequence of the film, as if in an old-school whodunit. The first people we see reacting to it are the school staff – Haugerud is always careful not to overplay the dynamic of two families pitted against each other – and they are all introduced rather abruptly, single entities being pulled toward a gravitational center.
The death of 13-year-old Jamie immediately assumes the weirdly rational, theoretical contours of a testing ground, more like a scenario meant to assess the resilience of a school and a community than a simple emergency. In the first shot, the shapes of a football pitch and goal emerge slowly from a series of abstract lines, an initially indistinguishable figure against a solid-color background. Then a body lying on the grass, paramedics attending to it, a girl running into the distance. It’s like something from high-above coalescing into reality, a ‘what if?’ morphing into an existential statement.
Throughout its first half, Barn establishes a rhythm out of eroding the meaning of verbal expression, which is what caused the first stage of walkouts at the Venice official screening: this growing sense of words corralling and extinghuising emotions gets ahold of the audience’s mind, producing an effect of rhetorical disgust; a true testament to Haugerud’s writing sensibility, and the type of nuance more commonly found in literary work – the director has of course published novels and written the script himself.
After the initial shock, mainly conveyed on screen by disbelief and disorientation, the school system as portrayed by Haugerud responds to the state of emergency in full force, with talk of ‘media strategies’ and ‘teams looking for a list of vulnerable children’. The room in which Lykke (Ella Øverbye) – the young girl who caused Jamie’s death – is questioned by social services looks suitable for an interrogation scene out of a mid-2000’s sci-fi thriller. And, in one of the few bits of writing that is perhaps too on-the-nose, two members of staff wonder if they have ‘done the right thing’ in hugging a child.
There is both a redundancy and an inescapable feeling that real meaning is being lost. The boy remains unseen, save for a picture later on. The girl is referred to by three different names, depending on whether we’re at school or at home. Any real reckoning with what happened is denied, and even when the film finally visits the inside of the families’ houses, the uncertainty and the questioning seem to mostly be about what is appropriate rather than what is felt.
Floating in the middle of all this, and acting as a dramatic buffer between the two kids’ families, is Liv, the school principal, who presides over an institution that is quite literally lost for words. Should it be ‘murder’, or ‘conflict’? ‘Kill’ or ‘cause someone’s death’? Haugerud’s camera navigates the frame panning continuously from side to side, at once eager to register the contribution of everyone in the room, and lost in a kind of horizontal inefficacy that does little to actually shape the discussion.
Had Haugerud kept going like this, Barn would be a stirring indictment of contemporary school practices and the obsession with accountability and political correctness in the public system. Or perhaps a satire on the trivialization of tragedy in the collective sphere. But true greatness in visual storytelling comes with being able to transcend and mutate your own premise, and we see a fitting example of this as the film progresses.
Having perhaps grown tired themselves of all the circling and the stalling, the characters seemingly rebel against the tyranny of the aimless word, and start having discussions that pierce the thin layer of societal discretion, as well as that of their own comfort zone. The evidence is in a series of big breakthrough moments in the intricate web of relationships: Liv (Henriette Steenstrup) finally confronting her brother Anders (Jan Gunnar Røise) about his omission, Jan (Brynjar Åbel Bandlien) taking Anders (again) to task about their direction together, and Jamie’s single father Per Erik (Thorbjørn Harr) unleashing his repressed anger in front of Lykke. In doing so, the script also stops being about the incident, and instead adopts a sprawling, profoundly humanistic stance of pursuing life in all directions.
Not unlike a Foucaultian engagement with the Other, a form of dialogical freedom, this is an extremely difficult trick to pull off, and creates a new status quo in which we are suddenly following individuals that not only could each be the protagonist of the story, but they actually are, given the expert splintering of the narrative threads. The ease in Haugerud’s staging of these conversations – and the genuine unpredictability of their nature – makes for a thrilling experience of discovery, as in the payoff to the presence of a young teaching assistant from Sweden early on in the film, who later comes alive in front of Anders in unfathomable ways.
These ample reserves of human texture – there to be casually unhearted and take you in a whole new direction only to later return to the path you had left – suggest the comparison of Haugerud’s cinema to that of Kenneth Lonergan, also an expert writer first and foremost, and also used to root his films in a tragic incident only to expand his field of observation later on. Lonergan’s work on Margaret (2011) seems especially relevant as a reference point, in the way it pivots from guilt and grief toward regret and desire, and for its openness in allowing peripheral and altogether new character to be woven into its fabric as the story unfolds.
A key difference is that the basic unit of Lonergan’s world remains the individual, albeit one longing for connections. Haugerud, on the other hand, maintains a tighter grip on social collectivity. These people may be breaking down and rebuilding their respective boundaries, but they still move in unison.
Their shared destinies seem to glow and fade along with the warm palette pulsating throughout the story. Without being too showy, Haugerud and his cinematographer Øystein Mamen immerse the characters in color, as evidenced by the use of red in and around Anders’ relationship, by the transitions that for a while seem to close out sequences with the end of each day, putting characters to sleep like in Joyce, with snow falling gently upon all the living and the dead. Or by the frequent shot of Liv being swallowed by the dark on her bike, symbolic of her transient role: perpetually torn between her responsibility at school, her displacement from the family home and the legitimacy of her love story with Per Erik, Jamie’s father. Her constant need to defend the man’s political affiliations in the context of a romantic relationship is the closest thing Barn has to a running gag, milking the disbelief of friends and relatives for all it’s worth.
The whole political element, which could have been the sole source of conflict in a less ambitious script, is smartly underplayed. It is a factor, with Lykke’s father Sigurd (Hans Olav Brenner) a Labour member and Per Erik a stern right-winger, but it mostly serves as the basis for a compassionate portrait of a lonely man, whose differences with Liv are as plainly visible as the leftist symbols sewn onto a living-room curtain, and yet that doesn’t stop him from folding them away and letting some light in.
Defined by its plurality – of perspectives, of themes, of ages – Barn moves out of step, like a knight on a chess board. A giant fresco on the wall of contemporary life, it leaves the audience resigned to the inability of taking it all in at the same time, but determined to trace every last strand with a dutiful eye. It’s a film about apparent permanence and slow growth, and the messy process of earning the latter by accepting the former.
A methodically laid-out and deceptively unflashy cinematic field on which watching a football goal being moved by ten meters might as well be the span that defines life itself.