Sweeping gender – Dag Johan Haugerud’s Sex and the rise of a new trilogy

Tommaso Tocci is a film critic based in Italy and France. He is most often seen on the European festival circuit, which he has covered for twenty years writing for Italian and international publications. He is also a programmer, translator and has worked for many festivals including Berlinale Talents, Edinburgh International Film Festival, Warsaw Film Festival and Giornate degli Autori.


Berlinale 2024: It has been five years since I sat in a screening at the Venice Film Festival to watch Dag Johan Haugerud’s Beware the Children («Barn», 2019 – here’s my review), and I still remember an experience thick with literary flair, distinct writing complexity, and an unusual, even quirky visual style. With Haugerud now presenting a new work at the 2024 Berlinale, many of those feelings came back and left me to wonder why the director is not talked about more often – and more enthusiastically – outside of his native Norway.

He returns with not just one film, but a whole new trilogy that has already been shot and which will see a staggered release at subsequent festivals throughout the year. Sex, Dreams, and Love: these are the three titles appearing on screen as a title card, by way of a little preview, before ‘Dreams’ and ‘Love’ disappear and we are left with today’s order of business.

Sex, as the director warned on stage prior to the world-premiere screening, to prevent Berlinale crowds from getting too excited, is a film mostly devoid of any sexiness and concerns itself instead with talking. People in the film build an entire rhythm out of talking – not just about the act of sex itself, but rather about notions of identity, social norms and the purview of modern masculinity. And for once it’s not the toxic variety, although these two friendly coworkers at an Oslo chimney-sweeping firm could do with some fresh air in their heads all the same.

A couple of unnamed, middle-aged husbands with solid, happy families, they begin the film sitting at a table and recounting to one another the two events that will inform their respective journeys. One, played by Thorbjørn Harr, has a recurring dream in which he finds himself looked at by David Bowie. Nothing happens, but he has the feeling he’s being objectified, not unlike what often happens to women. The other, played by Jan Gunnar Røise, reveals to have been propositioned by a male client and accepted to have sex with him, despite being (as he firmly maintains) absolutely not gay.

Everything that follows is essentially a consequence of this first act of sharing, with both men comfortable in talking to one another, while feeling on shakier ground in their domestic lives. Røise’s onscreen wife (Siri Forberg) is the one struggling the most, when her husband tells her of the encounter, refusing to call it cheating. Just a thing that happened, he says, and since he’s coming clean there should be no issue. After all, “having a beer doesn’t make me an alcoholic”.

Harr’s experience is not as confrontational. Whereas his pal is externalizing a problem, what he’s dealing with is more nuanced and has more to do with perception. The dream is enough of a destabilizing factor that he starts to worry that his voice is changing, for instance. Playing his wife, Birgitte Larsen (of Gritt fame) is able to let him process some of his own conclusions about fear, agency and accepting to put his body out there as an object of desire.

«Sex» (Photo: Arthaus)

Speaking after the screening, Haugerud told the audience that everything he does is through a queer perspective, and as such Sex is most interesting as a queer film – in that its characters would probably deflect the premise, but at the same time they wouldn’t be opposed to it, either. The director really manages to dismantle the structures we’re so accustomed to in the genre. It’s the kind of work that develops horizontally, through a series of very similar scenes that never lead to ground-breaking revelations, and instead just linger with a bittersweet aftertaste. Queer, in Sex, is a stasis, a form of equilibrium. An energy that’s bounced back and forth between an act that is done and then pushed away from the self (Røise’s homosexual escapade), and a thought that isn’t real, and yet is allowed to get closer and closer to the other man’s mind.

“Your life is shaped by those you talk to”, someone says in the film, doubling as what can be read as Haugerud’s entire filmmaking philosophy. His gift for writing dialogue is truly unique and engaging for someone who’s so preoccupied with categorizations and breaking down the meaning of things. It shouldn’t be so thrilling, and yet it is. Markedly funny, too, with a brand of humor that can go from dark to innocently bright.

What’s more, the visuals never play second-fiddle to the talking, and always keep the viewer on its toes. Like when cinematographer Cecilie Semec’s camera moves for the first time in the opening scene, incorporating one confession into the other with the gentlest of touches. Or the blocking in the first conversation between Røise and his wife, who’s introduced to the audience from the back, sprawling in a chair in front of a huge window (windows are used abundantly as a framing motif).

As he goes on, Haugerud gets even bolder, including a dolly zoom on Røise when he ventures downtown, worried about his wife telling his story to some friends, and one of the highlights of the film, a whole story-within-a-story tangent in which a doctor recounts the black-and-white parable of how a Frank Lloyd Wright tattoo almost wrecked a gay couple’s relationship. Similarly to what happened in Beware the Children, the camera doing its own thing seems to introduce dissonance and complexity while the dialogue on the surface tries to straighten things out and reach a (however unlikely) compromise in communication.

«Sex» (Photo: Arthaus)

Besides, making the two characters chimney sweepers is one of most peculiar bits of characterization in the film. A winning choice for novelty alone, it isolates the men even further in their black uniforms, symbol of a profession almost entirely associated with masculinity – the stymied kind for the exploited children from Dickens’ novels, and the resilient, positive example of a Dick Van Dyke’s Bert in Mary Poppins (1964).

Our two guys are a bit of both. Sometimes there’s a childlike element in them seeking little moments for themselves, as we see them taking time off on roofs, framed in sweeping panoramic shots, or bathing in a canal like two unsupervised siblings in colorful swimming trunks. When they play into the characters’ openness and vulnerability, Harr and Røise are a joy to watch, notably different from previous roles in other Haugerud films.

For the most part, however, the story needs to play off their status as heterosexual husbands and fathers. There is a lovely component to Harr’s journey in which his home scenes often include his teenage son (Theo Dahl), humorously inserted in shots that we would reasonably expect should include only the parents (such as in the bathroom at night).

It’s partly through caring for him (vulnerable, sensitive, and wise beyond his years which leads him to hilariously worry about his pension) that Harr manages to reconcile the fractured image he has of himself, while Røise, who has two children of his own, is always conspicuously alone with his wife, free to regress together and become kids in their own right, busy discussing their lovemaking, their boundaries, and the definitions of cheating.

«Sex» (Photo: Arthaus)

Along with the main piece of music by Peder Kjellsby, a notable presence throughout, the use of geography and urban landscape might be the real signature of the film. A Norwegian friend told me after the screening that “Oslo looked terrible” in the film. She – and perhaps I, as a foreign admirer – were expecting to see the capital’s trendy vibe on full display, à la The Worst Person in the World; but this is a different kind of story (and apparently the trilogy will focus on separate parts of the city with each film). Haugerud makes a point of confining the action to the suburbs, a residential neighborhood away from the downtown area, and the entry point to the city from the highway. There’s an abundance of aerial shots, making it clear the place is populated either with shiny new towering residential blocks, or vacant lots.

The only other form of architecture, far and few between, are small stretches of low-rise family units which of course are the only homes that would require chimney sweepers. Another reason the characters’ job is relevant is that it is – maybe more than anything – something vaguely obsolete, or at least that you haven’t thought about in a long time. As we see yet another empty, muddy terrain about to become a construction site, there’s a sense of erosion in the existence of our two men in black.

It would have been a neat little metaphor if Haugerud was making a point of depicting a doomed masculinity, chugging along all the way to extinction to make room for something new, and better. Instead, reasonable adaptability is the director’s secret weapon here. It’s about the beauty of process, even if imperfect and taking a while. When the characters leave home for the last time, we stay behind in their kitchen for a moment, contemplating each unwashed dish in the sink.

It is a calming, reassuring sight. Nothing’s on its way out; and whatever new is coming in, we’ll squeeze it in all together nicely.

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