by Eric D. Snider
Released: May 29, 2002
"Elling" was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and it's easy to see why it didn't win. It takes its characters on a pleasant, funny journey through life. Its scope is small and its people are lovable. It's light and airy. It's just like "Amelie," in other words, which also failed to win a Academy Award. (It went to the cynical war drama "No Man's Land" instead.)
If this were an American film -- and a remake is in the works -- it would never even be uttered in the same breath as "Oscar," except maybe to say "Oscar Madison and Felix Unger," whom the protagonists strongly resemble. This is, basically, a Norwegian "Odd Couple," where Oscar is brutish and sex-starved and Felix is mildly insane, and both are 40-year-old virgins.
Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen) is a self-professed mama's boy who has to be dragged out of his closet -- I mean that literally, though the metaphorical implications are worth considering -- and taken to a mental institution after his mother's death. After two years there, in which he shares a room with the fantastically lusftul Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin), the pair of them are released into the wild, to share an apartment and hopefully function in society. They are encouraged by a very relaxed social worker, Frank (Jorgen Langhelle).
Functioning will be difficult. Kjell's problems are not spelled out, but he seems just as afraid of answering the door or telephone as Elling is. (When either object rings, the camera goes wobbly, as if the movie itself gets weak at the knees when it comes to interacting with strangers.) Elling tends to panic in public, so Kjell has to do all the grocery shopping. "Why have an apartment if we have to leave it all the time?" is Elling's response when asked why he never wants to go out.
On Christmas Eve, Kjell assists a drunken pregnant woman who passes out on the stairs outside the men's apartment. The woman is Reidun (Marit Pia Jacobsen); the baby's father is nowhere in sight. She and Kjell develop a relationship, leaving Elling more alone and broken than he was.
But he takes it into his head that he is a poet, and while attending -- yes, attending! -- an evening of hilariously pretentious poetry readings, he meets Alfons (Per Christensen), an old widower in need of company. Eventually all four major parties have embarked on a minor adventure together, and Elling begins to figure out how he's going to live a normal life in the normal world.
The performances are funny and real, gracefully walking the line between portraying mental disorders and making fun of them. And though most of the film focuses on comedy, much of it of a lowbrow nature, there is also something mildly sad about the main characters and their plights. This feeling is reinforced by the sweet, plaintive musical score, gentle melodies that suggest we should not be surprised if we bump into a little poignancy along the way.
Rated R, frequent harsh profanity, some graphic sexual dialogue, brief non-sexual nudity
1 hr., 25 min.; in Norwegian with English subtitles
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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