Fjellet/The Mountain  (2011) is the second feature film of Norwegian director Ole Giæver. Released in 2011, the film has an extremely minimal storyline, yet a dynamic and deep emotional-line. It terms of the narrative events, it can be described simply as a film about Nora (played by actress Marte Magnusdotter Solem) and Solveig (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), a two woman couple, who take a cathartic four-day hiking trip to a snowy mountain in the interior of Norway, after the loss of their 4 year-old child in what appears to have been the result of an accident on that same mountain some years before their hiking trip. They go on the hike, they climb the mountain and they reach its top. The narrative events and the storyline are minimal, yet The Mountain has two great achievements. Firstly, it creates the conditions to engage us spectators in a dynamic flow of emotions, as an alternative to story events, in an unusual natural location for such kind of narrative. Secondly, it makes a powerful use of the experiential aspects of the site where the story takes place to cue some of the emotional content which is not fully delivered through verbal communication but in fact through our senses in connection to the natural elements of climate and the material composition of the landscape.

It may seem that such minimal choices for story events and narrative development would have made it easier for Giæver to achieve a control on the making of The Mountain. However, I believe it is precisely the opposite. By dimming down the external events, he creates a focus on the inner events of the two women, who are then exposed and confronted with their emotions and with the psychology of their interaction in an environment which totally isolates those their emotional dynamics. Both actresses have, in my opinion, a terrific performance, and both were nominated for the prestigious Norwegian film awards Amanda. By dimming down the narrative events, Giæver also sets a cinematic focus on the non-verbal interaction between the two women with the sensory and experiential elements of nature mediating that relationship.

The two exposition shots are paradigmatic of Giæver’s use of landscape and are a blueprint of his approach to the notion of cinematic site. In the first shot, we see a full scale long-shot of the mountain the two women are about to climb, the second shot is a close-up of a thermos (the thermos the child had on him/her at the time of his/her death) on the top of the mountain. Then, cuts to black, and the film begins with Nora and Solveig already engaged in their walking. First, their feet and legs and no image of their faces. By gradually scaling down the shots, Giæver is approaching the mountain in its sensory details, where we can not only see the textures of the materials (the flowers and bushes, the snow, the stones) but have a sensory experience of them. The small scale of shot which the film uses represents a movement from the mountain as a uniform and solid volume to a complex and nuanced body. This is a fascinating way for film to capture natural landscape and it shows that cinematic space is not something pre-existent but something that is constructed through the camera work and through the lenses of a director. In this case, the mountain goes from a space which we (and the characters) see to a space which we (through the mediation of the camera and the characters) experience with our senses. The first approach is to show its shape to sight, the second approach is to show its presence to the senses. Through showing its presence to the senses, the mountain becomes not just the site of the world of the film but part of the story itself.

This approach, and cinematic attitude, helps to Giæver to challenge some genre boundaries. Films set in mountains, or in natural scenarios, are usually within certain genre conventions of the adventure film or the thriller, or other genres where natural sites offer stories of survival. However, what Giæver does here, which to me challenges some of our genre expectations, is to use a site, which in film is usually used for external action, for, instead, the development of emotional contents. This can be valid for audiences in general, but it will be even more relevant for Norwegian audiences. Norwegian are all, to different extents, familiarised with hiking in the nature. Hiking occupies a cultural role of bonding between people. Thus, I see The Mountain as a film that absorbes some of this cultural context and adapts it to film. It is, to me, an excellent way to exemplify how the local and regional aspects of a culture, geography and climate can be transposed to the more global and universal language of cinema. There seems to be some relation between our drive for locomotive activities (such as walking, but also skateboarding and driving) and our emotions.

In this case, emotions are defined by the memories of the trauma that the two women carry. They may have memories of the same event but the two women have, however, not only different emotional contents related to the traumatic loss of their child but also different coping mechanisms. The contrast between their emotions and their coping mechanisms is what drives the dynamics of the film, which is to me an interesting alternative to a more conventional storyline of external events (within the survival action film). The film starts with Nora closed as a vault, leaving no possibility for Solveig to reach in to her emotions. In contrast, Solveig s emotions are more transparent. She will easily cry and feel distress which generates reactions of frustration from Nora. Initially, it may appear that Nora is strong and Solveig is emotionally weak, but as the film unfolds we realise that it is just that Solveig is perhaps more courageous in letting her emotions show, whereas Nora is repressing her emotions.

Solveig could represent an emotional way of coping with trauma and Nora a rational way. However, their emotional progression will show the opposite. In the first part of the film, their interactions will be impelled by two opposite tensions, that of Solveig, who tries to be transparent in her emotional coping, and that of Nora, who is impenetrable. As the tension builds up, Solveig becomes increasingly frustrated, until she starts being more physical and aggressive. After a confrontational event where Solveig pushes Nora, Nora starts breaking her resistance and slowly becomes more open. The climax of the film shows their resolution to climb the last segment of the mountain and reach the top where the accident happened. After reaching the site of the accident, Nora cries. It may seem not strong of a reaction to the climax of a film, but indeed it results from a gradual building up of tension which is in the basis of a transformational movement from Nora. Therefore, her cry is not a mere direct reaction to the memories of the trauma, but it is a cry for herself, for her transformation and for the fact that that transformation from locking up her emotions to being more open resulted from the love resilience of Solveig, who also changes by becoming more confident, an awareness she gains from also from having Nora as a the reflect in a mirror.

The films lack of plot is not, as I see it, a flaw, but simply a stimulating alternative to the moving forward of our interest in a film through an emotional engagement between the characters. What the film lacks in narrative events, as external events coordinated in a cause-effect manner, it exceeds in the construction of a dynamic map of emotional contents that are connected to the themes (trauma, love) which gain body through the sober and well achieved acting of Magnusdotter Solem and Dorrit Petersen, and also through the exemplary directorial work of Giaever, who does not simply show the mountain as the background to the story, but the mountain as a body with experiential and sensory presence and with the capacity to shape the aesthetics of the film and the emotional journey of the two women.

CategoriesFeatures Issue 4
Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.