One stereotype of Norway today: the country, low in population and rich from offshore oil, can provide cradle-to-grave support for its five million people and take in refugees from troubled regions all over the world, while taking time to defuse tensions in the Middle East. Not bad for Vikings who once raped, pillaged and burned.
All of that is true, but life just isn’t that easy in the three Norwegian films that premiered at TIFF this year, all of which played under the critics’ radar.
“The Immoral” puts that pretty picture to rest, with a couple that revolts against the welfare state that wants to take its child away. Lars Daniel Krutzkoff Jacobsen creates a pretty picture of his own, with a crew of misfits who create an alternative universe in the countryside, away from any constraints of political correctness. Far away.
Other writers have noted that “The Immoral” might have been called “The Idiots” if another Nordic film director hadn’t already seized on that title. While Jacobsen takes his antisocial tale to extremes that might impress Lars von Trier, his soft color palette is closer to Mike Leigh’s “Life Is Sweet.”
In the film an unrepentant single mother meets a Norwegian army veteran with his own version of PTSD. They team up with a prostitute and a pot-head. Shake well and serve. If the farce had been in English, it would have struck an immediate chord, but foreign comedies rarely play well with North American audiences.
It’s their loss. American filmmakers should also take note, because “The Immoral” tells its story, with its own oddly refined prettified aesthetic, at a rock-bottom budget – achieved in a country where everything is expensive. Jacobsen promises a cheaper film next time. I can’t wait.
If “The Immoral” shows you an underside of Norway that you won’t find in the tourist brochures, Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s new thriller, “Pioneer,” shows you another – mostly underwater. Balzac used to say that behind every fortune lies a crime. In “Pioneer,” we see that wealth, in moral Norway, can extract a lethal tradeoff. In Norway’s case, when offshore oil brought the promise of unimagined wealth, it also brought the willingness to make sacrifices to access that wealth.
Skjoldbjaerg’s previous “Insomnia” (1997) was one of the most visible indicators of the current resurgence of Norwegian film. “Pioneer” takes us back to the 1970’s, when Norway was building an infrastructure to exploit its offshore petroleum. Bear in mind that by 1973, OPEC was perceived to have a stranglehold on the world’s oil-consuming countries. Tapping into one’s own resources was like finding a fresh source of oxygen.
Breathing is one of the metaphors of “Pioneer,” in which two brothers, Petter and Knut, are deep sea divers in a project (run by an American firm) to connect a pipeline to an offshore well. Knut dies in an accident in a pressurized underwater chamber. Petter, already suspicious of his American advisers, learns that management knew of the risks that it tried to cover up. Businessmen are corruptible, just more corruptible when incentivized by American partners, we see.
Norway got rich. “Pioneer,” based on real events, suggest that some Norwegians got more honest. Filmed in tones of blue-gray that darken as the action goes deeper into the sea and higher up the management chain, “Pioneer” lurches around as Petter (Aksel Hennie) struggles to determine who knew what about his brother’s death and about the dangers that might end his own life. There are echoes of the corporate corruption plot of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” with so much English spoken by American experts that a remake might not even be necessary.
So little of the film takes place on dry land that “Pioneer” has the look of a science-fiction drama, with characters wearing diving costumes (space suits) and much of the story unfolding in concrete industrial blocks that resemble space stations. The visual references seem less distant when you think of a parallel promise of wealth in the US – the Keystone Pipeline System – and the risks that may be concealed by the corporations that stand to profit most from the mega-project.
In the monochromatically and unrelentingly realistic “I Am Yours,” the first feature from Pakistani-Norwegian Iram Haq, unemployed single mother Mina (Amrita Acharia) has a temperamental son, a self-absorbed boyfriend prospect in Sweden, and a scornful disapproving mother. And she hopes to fall in love, and get work as an actress. Things don’t work out, which is not the film’s element of surprise.
Circumstance drives fate more than character in this simple small-budgeted drama which defies the immigrant story boilerplate and that of the misfortunes of a young woman on her own with a young child.
A series of botched human encounters, “I Am Yours” lacks a conventional ending, which fits its take on realism. Shooting in claustrophobic interiors and on empty streets, this director has a feel for the fragility of a mother spurned by her pitiless honor-driven family, propelled this way and that when yet another thing goes wrong. Young Amrita Acharia, who resembles a younger version of the director (also an actress), embodies the unraveling that takes place when blithe immaturity spirals into self-destruction.
“I Am Yours” marks a first glimpse of life in South Asian culture transplanted into a Nordic setting. It offers a particular example of a look through that window, but also fixes on a universal unformed character facing decisions that demand maturity, and coming up short, finding that part of Norwegian society (or society in Norway) that feminism hasn’t reached. We’ll be seeing more from this director and actress.