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Toronto Programmer Reflects On His Nordic Selection

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This year again the Toronto International Film Festival (September 4-14) lives up to its reputation as one of the most important world platforms for Nordic films as no less than twelve feature length films – including eight world premieres and the documentary film The Look of Silence by Joshua Oppenheimer – have been picked for the 2014 edition. Steve Gravestock, (pictured) TIFF’s programmer of Nordic feature films gives a preview of what’s to expect from the Nordic region.

It was a really strong year for the Nordic region this year with a lot of veteran directors working at their peaks and young directors building on their debuts. I wouldn’t say there were any overriding themes but there were some definite tendencies.

A number of films were linked by a sense of history as an unbearable burden. This was especially evident in Swedish master Roy Andersson’s A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE which recoils in horror at Europe and North America’s colonial past and our appalling lack of empathy towards other living beings. (The imagery in these passages is really, really shocking.) It certainly says something that the ostensible heroes of the film are two aging, possible senile novelty salesmen who experience history as a nightmare.

One experiences something similar in Mikael Marcimain’s GENTLEMEN, based on a popular novel, which is this vertiginous, almost Pynchonesque conspiracy mystery of post-war Sweden with femme fatales, buried treasure under Stockholm, jazz pianists, possibly deranged definitely drug addled 1960s radicals, the crumbling apartments of the fading bourgeoisie, and shadowy billionaires up to no good. It appears to be about the corporatization of Sweden, but there’s probably a lot more going on as well. As my seven year old son and his friends would say, it’s epic.

In FORCE MAJEURE, Ruben Östlund’s Cannes hit, the couple is literally on the run (at least the husband is) from the weight of old roles, old assumptions about men and women, and their own complete inability to measure up to those roles.  It’s driven by a sense of societal collapse, much like Ole Giæver’s hilarious and sometimes troubling OUT OF NATURE, where a middle class salary man decides to go for a run/hike in the mountains near his home and begins to tear apart his life and everyone else’s. It’s like Dostoevsky’s Underground man out for a jog – he can’t escape his own relentless compulsion to judge and question everyone. No one, even himself, measures up.  A sense of imminent collapse (at least in terms of class and responsibility) is of course the subject of Liv Ullmann’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s fin de siècle drama MISS JULIE which stars Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton.

Something similar occurs, in a much more upbeat light hearted way, in Bent Hamer’s luminous romance, 1001 GRAMS, about a hyper ordered woman (Ane Dahl Torp) whose life is disrupted by family tragedies, and finds herself forced to travel to Paris several times in the span of a month, where a whole new world is revealed to her. It’s possibly Hamer’s most charming piece and boasts that absurd, slyly uncomfortable sense of humour people loved in earlier films like KITCHEN STORIES.

Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää’s THEY HAVE ESCAPED brings this collapse home in the most gut wrenching, visceral manner by dealing with how we’ve already failed upcoming generations. It deals with two teenagers — with I guess what would be deemed or dismissed as behavioural problems — who flee an institution and wind up on the run. The first half is kind of a youth on the run pastoral, the second a very dark anti-pastoral. This sense of failing upcoming generations runs through Susanne Bier’s harrowing A SECOND CHANCE, which star Nicholas Coster-Waldau as a cop and father forced to make an untenable choice. Coster-Waldau is amazing in the movie, which is possibly Bier’s toughest, most ethically challenging movie, as tough as BROTHERS or IN A BETTER WORLD, and belongs up there with her best work.

Of course, Ole Christian Madsen has always focused on characters forced to confront different realities than the ones they want or expect to see, which is a kind of collapse, but he’s never created a character so feverishly devoted to it as Eik, in his latest ITSI BITSI. The film is based on the founder of Steppeulvene, a huge Danish rock band from the 1960s, and is part lament, part love story, and manages to honour the energy of the period without over-glamourizing the excesses.

Baldvin Z.’s mature, transfixing LIFE IN A FISHBOWL looks at three different characters: an athlete turned banker; a young mother forced to work as a prostitute to support herself and her young daughter; and a drunken poet/novelist who is reeling from a personal tragedy. In turns worthy of Altman, each of the characters surprises us, with some turning out to be altruistic professionally and venomous privately. The film was a big hit in Iceland, beating GODZILLA at the box office when it opened.

At the other end of the spectrum – though sharing some themes or at least some elements — is the latest from Dome Karukoski, THE GRUMP. The hero is an aging farmer who’s forced to come to Helsinki and live with his sensitive New Age son and his Type A businesswoman wife.  It doesn’t go smoothly, hilariously so. The movie has lots to say about the prejudices and assumptions of the hero and his descendants. He’s bigoted, rude and stuck in his ways, but he’s also genuine and generous – unlike almost everyone else he encounters. The scene where he tries to teach his son how to cut down a tree, and the scene where he dines with his daughter and her Russian colleagues, are two of my favourite scenes all year.

In a lighter vein, collapse is comic in Jalmari Helander’s ‎BIG GAME where The President of the United States is chased through Finnish forests by traitors. His only ally? A Finnish boy who’s survived on his own for only a few hours.

via the Nordisk Film and TV Fund