‘People are strange’ but it takes a hell of a film to capture their strangeness: Ninjababy, Han and Gritt succeed

P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958) is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.

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TIFF 2021: Apologies to Jim Morrisson! Virtual TIFF (Tromsø International Film Festival 2021) premiered some extraordinary virtual masterpieces this last month. They belied the claustrophobic limitations of tiff.no, and we can only hope they make it soon to a theatre near you.

They are films worth seeing and worth seeing properly. A strong character can really make a film, be it boy or girl, be she born or unborn – so long as they got attitude (sic) – and these films boast characters with some serious attitude. Indeed, you could say – grammar aside – these Norwegian films got attitude. You might also say ‘not before time’, even if they had the misfortune to coincide with this year’s sadly eviscerated – but unbowed –TIFF, still now and forever Norway’s favourite film festival.

The three homegrown premieres are gloriously packed with characters, portrayed with a light but serious – and unwaveringly fresh – cinematic touch. Take the irrepressible Rakel (Kristine Kujath Torp) or, for that matter, her still more irrespressible unborn child, as featured in Yngvild Sve Flikke’s Ninjababy (2021). They both leap, larger than life, from our tiny screens, the pulsating blood-pumping Rakel and the animated Ninjababy him-or-herself.

More varied films you could hardly wish for among TIFF’s Norwegian premieres. Their themes range from Flikke’s ‘stealth bomber’ pregnancy, through Itonje Søimer Guttormsen’s frustrated and supremely frustrating artist, in Gritt (2021), to Guro Bruusgaard’s ragtag assembly of aggrieved, cornered males, in Han («Him») (2021). What they nevertheless share are some edgy, difficult but ultimately fascinating characters. Only great storytelling can spawn characters like these – but not the kind that sticks to the formula and does all the ‘correct’ things.

Great films – like these – manage to be wrong in all the right ways. By a sort of inspired alchemy, they conjure up counter-intuitive narratives that generate genuine tension, find drama in the everyday and a proper hook for our attention and engagement. It’s the hook so easily blunted, paradoxically enough, by its slavish pursuit: hallmark of those pedestrian conventionalities, which, among other things, made the little town of Hollywood so famous.

Narrative forms designed to please are soon jaded by overuse. Though we all love a happy ending, it’s not quite the same if we see it coming with all the banal inevitability of this week’s ‘casual Friday.’ It’s hardly a plot-spoiler to say you’re unlikely to see the ending coming in any of these films – unless your annoying media-player is telling you so.

I believe it gets a mention in Filmmaking 101: Never use a narrator! Well, here’s some extracurricular advice: Never say never! Take that cult classic of all cult classics, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, from 1982. Purists may well prefer the Director’s Cut, but I suspect even they share a sneaking, guilty affinity for the ‘detective noir’ voice-over of the ‘original’ theatrical release. By the same token, I trust they will share an affinity – minus the guilt – for Ninjababy’s dual narrators. While one narrator is old hat (or, at best, retro), two is positively postmodern and therefore…well, slightly less old hat, at least!

For this is more Annie Hall and Alvy Singer than Rick Deckard. A little in the manner of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), thoughts and musings intervene, adding emotional colour to the visual palette. This goes beyond Allen’s deadpan thought-translation subtitles, however. Flikke finds some creative, counter-intuitive ways to tap into the inner monologue – or dialogue. Memories typically intrude with full realism, bursting from the corners of our screen or an open doorway, while flights of fancy tend to follow the animated logic of her own magically animated doodles. This is how her imagined comic-figure bodily intruder becomes a kind of second narrator.

The breaches with Filmmaking 101 go on and on: How about putting your narrator to work on that most overworked theme: the unwanted pregnancy? Such basic mistakes are bound to lead to a pedestrian and predictable movie and yet Ninjababy is neither. It has pace but avoids its customary companion of superficiality. It narrates and comments but without the kind of tedious didacticism that closes off all moral ambivalence and neutralises the active, critical engagement of the viewer. Finally, the players in this drama are complex – and contradictory – enough to provide plenty of surprises.

There are no simple, predictable plot developments, nor any straightforward evaluations. The protagonist is resolutely ambivalent yet determined. Primal outbursts aside, she stoically accepts the joy and the sadness if she can be the architect if not the master of her own destiny. The sense of her identity and complexity is aided and abetted by some great acting and a sharp yet nuanced screenplay. The film moves masterfully through a range of tones and moods, from comic to dramatic, light to dark.

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Han, by contrast, is bound together by the ‘natural’ connections its visual storytelling affords. We meet a deftly orchestrated triumvirate of characters and their interweaving stories: Petter (Johannes Joner), the proud artist, past his prime, compromised, out of step with the times; Eirik (Emil Johnsen), the disillusioned angry young man, the outsider looking in with both envy and disdain; and finally Harald (Frank Werner Laug), the proverbial callow youth – silent, sullen, recalcitrant, escapist and, above all, 100% unassailable is his own self-absorbed centrality. Together they represent – rather convincingly – ‘mankind’ (sic), not to mention the proverbial Ages of Man.

The film produces moments of tension without ever devolving into melodrama, sometimes even giving an ironically realist brush to a familiar thriller cliché (beware the small plot spoiler to follow…). Noting that a woman, who momentarily showed interest in him, has been put off by one of his misanthropic rants, Eirik pronounces: ‘One day you will know…who I am.’ The thrill, if that’s the right word, lies in the perennial disquiet, the endemic uncertainty, which can cloak a thousand dangers, the largely harmless raw material of life’s everyday anxieties.

Han provides an unsentimental portrayal of white males and their challenges. They are hardly idealised – this will win no friends among ‘Proud Boys’ and their ilk – but they’re not exactly demonised either. At the very least they have pathos, in all its inherent ambivalence, its properly mixed feelings of sympathy and disdain. We bear witness to their vanities and manly aspirations, their righteous disillusion in all its cognitive dissonance with their own hypocrisy. We see them warts and all, with unwavering and unwaveringly accomplished cinematic realism. This exercise is assisted by some marvellous performances, not least Frank Werner Laug’s masterful portrayal of young Harald. It is no small achievement to capture this tortured soul, the bittersweet complexity of the universal disdain with which he masks his loneliness and fear.

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The effect of realism or authenticity in all its organic unpredictability is perhaps the hallmark of film as a successful work of art. This is the critical attribute all the Norwegian premieres share to their everlasting merit. Gritt, it should be noted, is unparalleled in this regard. The eponymous Gritt (Birgitte Larsen) is newly landed – or washed up – in Oslo with high hopes of embarking on an ambitious performance art project. We follow her across the city’s dusty streets, and all the dark places, literal and figurative, into which she must venture. We share her embodied existence and her embodied pain. We are shown Gritt in what has to be acknowledged as a veritable masterclass in observational cinema.

Then there are the attributes of the wandering artist herself. These three films provide a wonderful pantheon of characters but Gritt is the queen of them all. We have studies in pathos, but it is Gritt who will really make your spine tingle and your flesh crawl. I try not to give advice, as a rule, but here I must make an exception: Watch Han first and then Gritt. The first will provide a delicate prelude in the key of pathos, setting the stage for the orchestral crescendos to follow.

For this is the quintessential movie experience. We feel her pain, and here I mean not only her own pain but the pain – or at least supreme irritation – she unwittingly inflicts on others. As a viewer, I wavered continually on the cusp of laughing or crying, or was it cringing? This is a film, which constantly walks the vicious, delicate tightrope of postmodern irony. It recalls Ricky Gervais at his merciless best but not necessarily best known, especially those excursions into human frailty provided by Extras (2005-7).

Is Gritt the new everyman for our times, the grim, tragi-comic apotheosis of Western individualism and alienation? She seems to ooze the spirit of the age in her abject groundlessness, her clumsy interactions with others, the relationships squandered or ruined in an orgy of over-eagerness. The endemically marginal Gritt is a walking, trudging metaphor for modern rootlessness and atomism, her only companion the dismal wheely-bag she has constantly in tow.

In her supreme absurdity, she represents a kind of Don Quixote figure, swinging at the windmills of a ‘white inflammation’ she feels so acutely but can never coherently express, least of all in a project application. Above all, she returns us to the modernist trope – and even the same city streets – of Hamsun’s Hunger (1890) but here leavened with postmodern irony. What could be more modern, functional – more ‘jet-set’ than a wheely bag? Yet here its natural, that is conventional resonance is negated, its aesthetic and normative charge reversed.

Considered as a whole, this triad of new Norwegian filmmaking represents an extraordinarily penetrating study of the human condition of modern (or is it postmodern?) times. It depicts the struggle to find one’s way in the trappings of this mortal coil, in the face of its natural propensities, to reproduce, for example, or otherwise be tortured by the contradictions of one or another gender role. Perhaps most tellingly, it evokes the struggle of the creative soul against the grain of the social and remorselessly bureaucratic fabric of modern living, as epitomised by the plight of the artist, actual or wannabe.

I will end, perhaps unadvisedly, on a personal note. The viewing experience, for all its minimalist and isolating form, gave me my own human, modern moment. I think I just fell in love with Norwegian film! So what, if I’m just one more alienated commodity fetishist? So what, if I’m one more link in the chain of that interminable and yet ineffable ‘white inflammation?’

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