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.
‘Last year at Haugesund’: Here follow the true confessions of a repeat-offence ‘juror’ for The Norwegian International Film Festival. I might have said ‘You Be the judge!’ but I certainly didn’t mean it! It’s that time of year again, when the Norwegian film industry descends en masse upon the otherwise quiet little town of Haugesund. I still remember last year – it helps I kept a diary. This offers some salutary warnings but mostly encouragement to this year’s attendees, judges all, however informal.
What a ride! The free-flowing bounty of films will make your head spin, but it’s also what makes the whole gig worth the candle, and the winner turned out to be an absolute gem. This was none other than Lukas Dhont’s deceptively complex masterpiece, Close (2022). What follows is a diary of the trials, tribulations and deliberations of the Film Critics’ Jury last August in Haugesund. Any resemblance between the characters portrayed and any real persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. The same goes for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad («L’Année dernière à Marienbad») (1961), though its importance as a source of inspiration goes without saying.
I confess I did this once before, but so long ago – a whole different epoch actually! We’re talking BC – before Covid – as opposed to AD – anno domicile. So, to begin this story properly: Once upon a time, in what we once called 2019 but shall henceforth be known as 0001 BC, I made my juridical debut at Haugesund. That’s a matter for the prequel, however, because, as the notable film essayist Mark Cousins never tires of saying: ‘Then this happened!’ In truly cinematic style, we got the old team back together, three very long years later, namely Kristin Aaalen, Le Nguyen and Yours Truly. ‘Guess who just got back today…etc., etc.’
I have learnt a thing or two across the millennia, not least that the ‘Jury’ itself is a total misnomer. The jury is an egalitarian institution, a gathering of one’s peers chosen essentially at random, ideally by lot, as favoured indeed by the eponymous democracy of classical Athens. This is how a jury becomes representative and therefore fit to pronounce judgement. That is so not us! We sit, I realise a little uncomfortably, rather as reputed authorities, with supposed special competence.
So, I should start by saying: Pardon my hubris, my vain ambition! Please bear in mind that some seek out their hubris; others have it thrust upon them. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. At any rate, I sat once again, as a habitual offender, on what is really a sort of panel of judges. I regret to say this can in no way be confused with a gathering of simple, honest jurors. I don’t let this hold me back, I hasten to add! After all, who doesn’t get a certain guilty satisfaction from being needlessly critical, from sitting in judgement? You think I’m judgemental? Then who are you to pronounce judgement on me! I easily warm to the role, to be fair. After all, I’m a long-standing admirer of judgementalism personified, Judge Dredd, though I preferred his exuberant comics persona to his rather stilted reincarnation on screen: When movies are only zombie comics…
As I recalled from ‘the old days,’ what I like about the Norwegian international Film Festival is that almost anyone who’s anyone in Norwegian showbusiness seems to be here during the opening weekend (because of Amanda), plus a few refugee notables from the Nordic region and beyond. Indeed, I spied virtually the whole Swedish cast and crew of Richard Hobert’s Love Proof from 2022 (Hobert himself included) on the bus and plane out of there on Friday afternoon. Their premiere had marked the official closing the night before.
I kept my head down, reminded, as I was, of the old Critic’s Dilemma. Fact is nobody in the industry really likes a critic. At best, she’s a necessary evil but that does mean she will be pandered to, within reason and through gritted teeth. It’s a dirty job but somebody has to do it. Hence, we are invited to the receptions, sometimes, and welcomed a bit. Our thinly veiled pariah status only builds camaraderie within the despotic junta itself, however. After all, come hell or high water, we will pronounce judgement, and…er…justice will be done. But I am getting ahead of myself. I have started my story, like some sort of postmodern idiot, with the ride home! Let’s try and keep it cinematic, shall we? Ready?
Six days earlier… This is me arriving on the very eve of the festival, at the golden hour, a cinematographer’s delight. Haugesund in late summer (or mid-autumn as it’s known in north Norway) is positively beautiful, and no worse for all the pretty film people pouring into town in their designer sunglasses. I remember at this moment that there will be many such lovely sunny days spent cocooned in the dark with our precious incandescent light. So be it. We have a job to do.
The first day I make the elementary mistake of frittering away way too much time on non-competition films. So naïve! The pace, I know, will be breakneck and sure enough it soon starts picking up, running through the gears. Before long I think nothing of watching four or five films a day. No sooner are the credits rolling than we’re up and running to our next reel. It’s the picture-flicking rollercoaster ride from hell, the long night’s journey into day. I’ve been here before; I knew what to expect. Moreover, many of the films were very good and some were positively brilliant. One we even had the temerity to call a masterpiece!
Haugesund is a strange festival – perhaps the least festival-like of any. Lots of mainstream would-be blockbusters wash up here, continually lowering the arthouse tone – not always a bad thing by the way! Most features shown here are already slated for general distribution. They’re literally coming to a theatre near you. This is the venue of choice, in particular, for many top-of-the-line Norwegian films, those with a decent budget, those bent on – if not assured – world domination.
Two classic examples duly arrived with appropriate fanfare and standing ovations, Erik Poppe’s Utvandrerne (The Emigrants, 2021) and the much anticipated opening-night premiere of Gunnar Vikene’s Krigsseileren (War Sailor, 2022). Both are proper costume dramas with proper action, verging on epic in their reach and grandeur. Neither would win our award, but they were certainly showered with plenty of accolades from other quarters. Indeed, Krigsseileren snagged Haugesund’s audience award and Utvandrerne received the ecumenical prize.
They’re both good films, but I wouldn’t be a critic if I didn’t add that Utvandrerne was better. It should also be noted that they’re both timely – important even. Since we’re already hopelessly lost in a postmodern vortex, I’ll just come back to why one is better and both are important. For the time for talking about our award winner draws near…
This is where I might be expected to write that there were so many good films, etc., etc., such a difficult choice, etc., etc, or at least that I said something to that effect on stage when I presented the award, to the Arthaus rep., the closest we came to the filmmakers themselves. However, despite a wealth of very good films, potential worthy winners even, Lukas Dhont’s Close (2022) somehow stood head and shoulders above them all. This will take a bit of explaining, but here goes…
Though I’m deeply suspicious of that Siskel-and-Ebert-style copout of focusing on a film’s audience effects, à la ‘I was entertained,’ they can hardly be ignored in this case. What a journey! We run with these young boys through fields of flowers without this even feeling contrived – astonishingly! We feel the energy and euphoria of their sheer youth in all its ardour, their love of life above all, and (spoiler alert!) we watch and feel it all come crashing down. I can’t ever recall sitting in a cinema before and becoming aware of invisible sobbing all around, like it was lights-out on death row. The film is profoundly affecting, and I’m by no means the only one thus affected – this much is empirically proven. It nevertheless behoves the self-styled critic to try and explain its power.
Of course, the jury will rave about its selection – we chose it after all – but this was different. We turned our nobs up to 11 (apologies to Marty DiBergi, director of This is Spinal Tap, from 1984). We went, in other words, as far as it is possible to go and perhaps beyond. We called it a masterpiece! Reckless behaviour – from an experienced jury too! What can I say? We loved it. Unanimously. Here is why or at least my take on why.
What made Close powerful and extraordinarily intense was its sheer seamless quality. It’s not often a film ticks all the relevant boxes: Great screenplay, marvellous acting – not least from the youngsters playing the two central roles – and outstanding cinematography. The checklist nevertheless fails to do this justice. It is so much more than the sum of its parts. Dohnt brings the components of cinematic craft together to create a rare movie magic, the sheer enchantment of an audio-visual narrative of unique subtlety, emotional depth and sensitivity. This was and will always be a great story, tragic but also uplifting, affecting but also illuminating. Watch! Feel the joy and, not least, the pain! And learn! The mark of great art will likely be seared across your consciousness. The person who leaves the cinema may even be slightly different, better perhaps, than the one who went in.
Still, I cannot ignore some other terrific films, the embarrassment of riches, the precious gifts laid before our triumvirate of kings or wise men. For a start, there’s the story of an escaped convict desperately searching for a film fragment of the daughter he never expects to see again in the flesh. This is Yimou Zhang’s beautiful, and beautifully ironical One Second (2021) set in 1960s Communist China. Then there’s the futurist tale of a clapped-out android ‘sibling,’ in all its visual poetry and quirky sensibility, Kogonada’s After Yang (2021).
And I cannot think of Ulrich Seidl’s Rimini (2022) without fondly recalling the words of Art Bergmann from his underrated swansong, Bound for Vegas, from 1990. For this is a story set in Italy’s answer to Vegas, about a ‘A never was / Trying to be a has-been / A has-been on the come-back trail.’ Seidl makes his own audacious brand of visual poetry, exquisitely ugly and beautiful at once, like any out-of-season holiday resort, like any has-been/wannabe pop star tramping its boards. Finally, Hirokazu Kora-eda’s Broker (2022) is a quirky little gem of a road movie, achieving the virtually impossible: a heart-warming tale of human trafficking! Please don’t try this at home!
I said finally but I lied. I couldn’t possibly wind this up without a word about Norway’s finest at the festival: The masterly Utvandrerne. It shares with Krigsseileren a certain historical-social importance. This is a pedagogical importance above all. We need to understand the past, to see it in its own terms, if we are to deal better with the present, not least morally. Utvandrerne weaves a powerful narrative with strong characters to provide genuine insight into human lives lived under near impossible conditions. Then, at the very last, its director did his bit to lower the arthouse tone. He didn’t content himself with nuance, with poetry, though the film was rich in these rarefied virtues.
For many audience members the implications to draw from this story of ‘our own’ necessitous dislocations and migrations would have been clear enough – without the note of emphasis added along with the credits. The story itself speaks eloquently enough, if not transparently, to the plight, as well as dynamism and, indeed, heroism, of the many thousands who face such struggles, displacement and/or flight across Europe and beyond today. The political stakes are high, however, and the habitual blindness to how one’s own problems are reflected in the experiences of others remains a formidable impediment to ‘connecting the dots.’ That’s why I say an unconditional ‘bravo’ to Poppe for explicitly dedicating the film to today’s migrants in his powerful, if heavy-handed, illustrated credits-cum-epilogue.
Krigsseileren shares many of the virtues of Poppe’s work in drawing our attention to those given a rough ride by a world they had no part in making. Here the focus is merchant seamen caught up in what the ethical and political philosopher Michael Walzer so aptly dubbed ‘the tyranny of war.’ Unfortunately, the film fails to ignite (at least figuratively speaking!) compared to Utvandrerne. The visualisation and acting of this intrinsically dramatic story of violence and dislocation are strong enough. The lead especially, portrayed by the ubiquitous Kristoffer Joner, was outstanding. The film’s weakness lies rather in its narrative construction and ultimately the screenplay.
Perhaps the all too obvious conflict at the heart of the movie, namely World War II, distracted writer-director Vikene from paying adequate attention to the human conflicts unfolding under its shadow (spoiler alert…). The story’s central human tension is between the protagonist, Alfred, and Sigbjørn, his closest friend. The latter becomes romantically involved with Alfred’s wife, Cecilia, mistakenly believing him to be dead. Meanwhile, Alfred mistakenly believes his wife and children to be dead, and, naturally enough, ends up in an opium den somewhere in the Far East.
Despite the screenplay having Sigbjørn track Alfred down to the figurative ends of the Earth, the root-and-branch interpersonal and emotional tensions are scarcely addressed. The audience is never connected to Sigbjørn’s regrets, Alfred’s ambivalence about his dear friend and unwitting betrayer, nor Cecilia’s divided affections. This is a drama and true drama cannot only be about dodging shells. Then we have entered the domain of the action flick. A drama should also be about dodging or, better still, dealing with, in this case, a jealous husband. The problem, I believe, is clear: Vikene created a tale almost too epic to handle and ultimately pulled his shots dramaturgically. Other signs of strain were the overuse of ponderous narrative devices like on-screen dates with relevant historical background, and voiced-over letters to loved ones.
The veteran Joner’s performance has rightly been lauded, even hailed as his best work. That may be, but it’s far from being his most effective. I mean effective in carrying an audience with the character, getting to know her, care about her, perhaps even love her – or hate her – or both. Not so coincidentally, I saw Joner make precisely such a performance the very evening our jury work was finally done. With a collective sigh of relief we were taking a glass at the quayside and, lo and behold, they’d set up a screen.
Can you guess what we saw? Here’s a clue: A siddis would have an unfair advantage. Congratulations if you guessed correctly – especially if not yourself from Stavanger! You are also a winner! We watched none other than Arild Østin Ommundsen’s west-coast classic, Mongoland, from 2001, in which Joner played his very first starring role. It’s no epic but boy, is it fun! Of course, it didn’t hurt that I saw it at precisely that moment I could finally relax. Nevertheless, this is a great comic movie with some terrific comic acting from debutant Joner.
Comedy is drama too in that it hinges on conflict. Tragedy is the conflict that moves us to tears; comedy the one that prompts nervous laughter. Much of the comedy here is character based. It springs from the internal conflicts and struggles of the chronically anxious and yet strangely courageous Kristoffer, beautifully portrayed by Kristoffer. Kristoffer the actor continues to do good work, and Krigsseileren is no exception, but that strange, precocious student film made on a shoestring budget is such a hard act to follow!
Well, the madness is finally over, and we got the job done. We made a judgement and a statement on behalf of critics everywhere, in the name of a sort of institution, but what can it all mean in these post-truth times? The widespread questioning of ‘received wisdom,’ what we think we know, is rooted in a profound institutional crisis of global dimensions. So, don’t feel bad, card-carrying accredited critics: You’re not alone. At bottom, this is a crisis of civilisation, the tearing apart of all those fine threads of trust and mutual understanding and accommodation that, gossamer thin as they may be, have nevertheless bound the social fabric so tightly together. For good or ill, that social fabric is unravelling before our eyes, like a badly knitted sweater!