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Review: ELLING


ELLING , NORWAY , 2001 , MPAA Rating : R for language and some sexual content

ELLING, this year’s Oscar nominee from Norway as best foreign film, is that perfect little gem of a film that draws you into a new way of seeing the world.  Its eponymous protagonist is a prickly, obsessive middle-aged man suffering a slew of neuroses starting with anxiety and acrophobia and so on down the rest of the alphabet. A trip to the local grocery store is a test of courage not that much less daring for him than what an arctic explorer faces in the great white wastes and no less worthy of our admiration, even if we can’t help but think it’s all rather silly. His take on life and how it should be lived is, if nothing else, original. It might not be the life you or I would choose, and in the end, Elling doesn’t either, but getting this unconventional point of view slyly reveals the joys of la vie quotidienne. In it friendship is a funny thing, normalcy is what you make of it, and the way fate puts us together sometimes makes for combinations that click in ways that confound all reason.


We meet Elling he’s nearing 40 and hiding in a closet after his mother dies. He’s already an adult, but one who’s been smothered by Mama and now finds himself unable to cope with life without her. At the government institution, he’s given a big bear of a roommate, Kjell Bjarne, another grown man with a history of family abuse that’s left him with no coping skills except the butting of his head against the nearest hard object. No two people could be more different, the tidy Elling and the über-slob Kjell Bjarne, but when Elling begins to spin wild tales of a sexual history-that-never-was for the willing but virginal Kjell Bjarne, they bond, even when Elling is revealed as a liar and just as pure as the driven snow as Kjell Bjarne.


The two eventually qualify for independent living in an apartment with only a chain-smoking, leather-clad social worker dropping in from time to time for supervision.  It’s a rough road to the real world for Elling, who balks at every attempt to make him self-sufficient. “Why should I have a lovely apartment, he asks, ”if I always leave it?  Why would I want to talk into the plastic of a telephone to someone who’s not in the room with me? It’s not natural.” The sequence where the social worker tries to get Elling to speak into the phone’s receiver is an exquisitely funny and poignant series of jump cuts that build to a level of frustration of almost operatic proportions. Such lines of reasoning do not bode well for Elling’s chances for recovery, but their odd convoluted logic reveals someone capable of a sort of deep thinking that will come into play later.  As when our boys use their new phone skills to access sex chat lines.


Eventually, it is the omni-voracious Kjell Bjarne, lusting for a plate of pork and the buxom waitress serving it, who forces Elling out of the house and into a restaurant and it is here, as Elling suffers a shy bladder in the public rest room, that the turning point comes. The man standing next to him snaps his fingers and, suddenly, with that one sound on the death-defying trip to the public facility, it’s as though Elling has woken up to the world outside. Not the most poetic place for a life-changing revelation, but life can be less than aesthetic. Or predictable. When Kjell Bjarne takes up with a single mother-to-be, Elling in a fit of pique, decides to take up outside interests, too. Serendipity leads him to an open poetry reading and a friend in the form of a mysterious older man whose reaction to Elling is “Other people pretend they’re crazy, you really are.” And what’s more, he’s delighted about it. Never underestimate the power of pique.


Director Petter Naess  tells the story of Elling with all the clean spareness of an IKEA easy chair. The humor is deft, sometimes subtle, sometimes raucous, but always smart.  Also smart is that we never learn exactly why either of these guys was institutionalized, are they emotionally disturbed or mentally handicapped or what?  It’s noteworthy, but not annoying, because of the point of view of the script, which is strictly Elling’s, and beyond an ironic comment or two, he isn’t terribly concerned with it, so why should we be?  Per Christian Ellefsen, who originated the role of Elling on stage, has the right combination of futziness, heart, and just plain orneriness that make seeing what he will do next compulsively watchable. And watching Elling, projecting a self-confidence he has to grow into, flawed but trying, as he slowly and not-at-all surely make his way to independent living in the fullest sense, is entirely satisfying. This is due in no small measure to Ellefsen and Naess never stooping to saccharine sentimentality. It’s the very cussedness about Elling, his determination to have his way, his preoccupation with doing things the proper way, that becomes the means by which he becomes a fully realized human being. 


Ultimately, Elling and Kjell Bjarne learn a little about living in the world with the rest of us; and the rest of us, learn to appreciate a little eccentricity and the inspired wisdom that can sometimes come of it. The joy of watching is the way these two prod and provoke each other into life in the real world, or as close as they are going to get. 



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