For the second straight year, Cinema Scandinavia had the opportunity to view a few of the Nordic films on offer at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The festival itself descends on Toronto every September, and always boasts an impressive line-up of Nordic films, acting as a veritable launch point for Nordic directors to enter North American consciousness.
Given the bustle of the festival and the scheduling conflicts that can arise, it is of course impossible to get to everything. Nevertheless, this group of five Nordic films still managed to prove diverse, with highlights and lowlights, debut gems, and new works by acclaimed directors of old.
Erik Skjoldbjaerg is one of those acclaimed directors who still creates a buzz every time he brings something new to TIFF. The Norwegian director first came to prominence with his 1997 film, Insomnia (later remade by Christopher Nolan), and tends to revel in psychological darkness (perhaps no surprise for anyone familiar with Nordic film). This year saw Skjoldbjaerg bringing Pyromaniac to the festival. Set in 1981, and based on true events, Pyromaniac tells the story of Dag, a young man who runs amok in his home village of Finsland by setting fires. The irony is that Dag is the son of the local fire brigade chief, and not only grew up helping his dad put out fires, but is being groomed to one day take over the role. This irony isn’t much used in a poetic way however, more as a narrative device to stave off any suspicion from the locals (including the police) that Dag may actually be the one behind the arsons. Indeed, we have full disclosure that Dag is the arsonist from the get-go. Hence it’s just a matter of when/if he’ll get caught, and to what extent he’ll create damage and hurt people. Thus the film is poised somewhere between a character study and a psychological cat-and-mouse suspense game between Dag and the local police inspector. However, a balance for the latter isn’t particularly well struck. While the police inspector does make for one of the more compelling characters, the film is decidedly not about him, and he is interspersed sporadically with his side of the narration never heavily weighted. Hence, the film is almost by default a character study of its lead. Yet there is just one problem: Dag isn’t particularly interesting. And the film offers no real insight into why he’s is becoming an arsonist, nor does it afford him any real complexity of character. He’s essentially a quiet loner who lights fires and rarely socializes. When he does, things tend go poorly. In one scene, Dag spends time with two girls at a beach. Quickly however, a friend of theirs comes by and they hastily jump in the car, leaving poor old Dag in the water (without saying goodbye). We can certainly glean his disappointment, but the moment itself is an odd one. Is the film-maker suggesting that were Dag to have had afternoon delights then he would be a happier person and wouldn’t feel the need to be an arsonist? It seems that this is indeed one of the only points the scene could really have had, as there is so little other insight given to Dag’s head-space. Yet this is unfortunate for a couple of reasons, not least of which being the awful implication that the lack of female attention plays a part in his renewed criminality thereafter, but also because it exposes how little we (the audience) have to go on in terms of understanding him. Indeed, the only other possibility is that the scene is used merely to illustrate the fact he’s unhinged and doesn’t interact ‘normally.’ But we already know that. He’s an arsonist.
There is one angle to the film that could have afforded it some more salience; Dag’s mother starts to suspect her son. As she clearly loves her son (he still lives in the house as well), her slow realisation is painful one. But again, the film isn’t really about the mother, nor elaborates on this to any great degree. Instead, we’re stuck with Dag. And so, we predominantly watch him quietly go around and set fires, without major suspense, psychological insight, or narrative resolution. It all seems a little empty, and leaves one wondering: Why? Why did Dag want to light those fires? And perhaps more importantly: why did Skjoldbjaerg want to make this film? Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t offer any illuminating reasons as to either.
The Oath provokes similar questions of its Icelandic writer/director/star, Baltasar Kormákur. It sees Finnur, an upper class specialist surgeon and perfect father (not to mention son of a revered politician) go to great lengths to wrest his drug-binging daughter (Anna) from the clutches of her pusher boyfriend, Óttar. If that sounds a bit tropey, it’s because it is. Indeed, we already know much of how the dynamics will play out. For instance, Anna is inexplicably clueless as to how nasty her boyfriend is – whereas it’s clear to everyone else on the planet Earth – so she lashes out at her father for getting involved and being disapproving. Meanwhile, Finnur and Óttar understand each other perfectly well, and push and pull each other in a tug of war over Anna’s head. Óttar makes the requisite tough guy ultimatums and threats, and when Finnur’s ‘Mr. Nice Sensible Guy’ responses don’t seem to resolve anything, he turns into an Icelandic Liam Neeson with a particular set of skills, capturing Óttar and using his medical knowledge to turn the menacing tables.
Most of this action is rather by the book. In fact, one could probably slot this into an entire sub-genre of films wherein righteous fathers take the law into their own hands when the police fail to protect their innocents (usually females) from the sinners of society. Only occasionally does the film attempt to put a new spin on things. For instance, there is a scene with poor little Óttar’s mother, to remind us that of course, he is a son too, and not just some movie villain from a genre piece. There is also the related passage by Óttar when he attempts to win sympathy from Finnur whilst tied up, opining about his tough childhood at the hands of his abusive father. Considering Finnur’s father was a beloved politician and doting dad, it reminds us of cyclical violence and how the paths Finnur and Óttar have been shaped by their respective childhoods. There is also a scene of genuine warmth between Óttar and Anna, illustrating not only why Anna might love Óttar, but that Óttar does truly care for Anna. All of this comes as a welcome dose of pathos and intelligence, but these moments are mainly relegated to the back seat. What really drives things are the tropey suspense mechanisms; the threats, the violence, the police investigation, etc.
On that last note, the film goes surprisingly far after Óttar’s demise into ‘the case’ from the detective’s standpoint. Finnur is suspected, taken in for questioning, and eventually let go with the forewarning that ‘everyone slips up at some point…’ And that’s the way Kormákur chooses to end things. Leaving the audience guessing as to whether Finnur will eventually get caught and whether he and his daughter can patch things up. It’s a strange choice for a suspense piece. After all, it’s not based on a true story (where we might already have the answer), nor is it an art-house character study whereby an open ending might have greater internalised/reflective value for the audience. This is a plot-based suspense thriller. The open ending here presumes we really must care about the whether the fictional characters will be ‘ok’. But why would we?
It would make more sense to concern ourselves with the characters in The Commune, by Danish master Thomas Vinterberg, as they could be any of us. The Commune is to some extent one of Vinterberg’s more personal works, inasmuch as he himself partially grew up in a communal living setting when he was teen (one might infer here that his avatar in the film is the teenage daughter). It also stars two of his The Celebration alum, Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm, as a married couple who decide to allow friends into their inherited house to live with them communally in order to retain the ownership of the costly house and to breathe some fresh air into their petit bourgeois lives. Naturally the new arrangement leads to some unexpected outcomes, including those which have greater ramifications on their marriage. While the film is perhaps not as emotionally affecting as masterworks like The Celebration or The Hunt, it remains a richly immersive and empathetic portrait of human connectivity. Vinterberg has long excelled at finding moments of humour in his material, no matter how serious or unsettling the overall tone, and here he allows his characters even more room to comedically fraternise. Indeed, it’s perhaps his funniest film, which helps ingratiate the characters to the audience, keeping them close when they go off the rails or act selfishly or unpleasant with each other. Dyrholm in particular gives a performance of great bravado, recalling some of the work by the late Gena Rowlands. She would be reason alone to see the film, though the film needs no apologist. It’s a sharply observed piece by Vinterberg, and evokes a wash of sentiment for its era, its characters, and their hopes, dreams, and failures.
Little Wing too, is about its characters hopes and dreams, though they’re resolutely more humble. The off-beat debut feature by Selma Vihunen follows Varpu, a young girl navigating the transition into adolescence while living with her emotionally adolescent mother, Siru. While Siru thinks her own problems will be solved if she can just pass a driver’s test (she repeatedly fails), eleven-year-old Varpu teaches herself how to drive via cars hot-wired by her new peer group. This vehicular irony is important, not just for the glaring illustration that Varpu proves more capable than her mother in this regard, but also because of its symbolism of adulthood juxtaposed with her greatest passion hitherto: riding horses and ponies, which she still does, though is beginning to recognize she probably won’t forever. Hence, as Varpu is in many ways more mature than her mother, her increasing desire for answers about the world and how she fits into it seem inexplicable at home. Thus, she begins to look for answers elsewhere. Her first instinct is to inquire about her estranged father, who she has no real memory of, but whom she hopes might help illuminate something about herself if she can only track him down. This doesn’t prove too difficult − at least to find out what town he’s living in − and with her newfound driving skills in tow, she sets off on a road trip to find her dad. The adventure takes some twist and turns, but while Varpu finds her father (with the eventual help of her worried mother), she doesn’t find what she was looking for. Cracks begin to appear in her father’s facade after a good first impression (he’s schizophrenic), and Varpu is both reconciled to why her mother is on her own, and to the fact there may be no answers to be had at all. All the adults she encounters are far from perfect no matter where she goes, and nobody really seems to have anything quite figured out. Indeed, adults appear little more than relatively experienced adolescents, and perhaps everyone is simply getting by, making mistakes as they go along. It’s not exactly a message, in fact it’s more of a non message, but one that frees the film from any didactic conventions, keeping it disarming, curious, and easy to sympathize with.
Formally, the film sometimes feels a bit listless, and the performances are a little uneven – though Lauri Maijala as the father is very good – but in the end it remains an original, quirky, and funny film, which certainly showcases the promise of Vihunen’s voice.
The champion of this smörgåsbord of Nordic fare however, goes to yet another Finnish film, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki. Based on a true story, the title character was a boxer in the late 50’s – early 60’s in Finland who once had a bantamweight title shot against American Davey Moore in 1962. For the Finns, Mäki’s opportunity was given nation-building significance; it would ‘put Finland on the map.’ For his former-boxer coach, Elis, it would be another shot at the limelight. Yet for Mäki himself, a humble small-town boy, it would mainly be a distraction from his girlfriend, whom he had recently fallen for. Of course, he does like boxing, but he likes being a baker as well, and saunas, and the outdoors, and being around friends and family just the same.
An interesting aspect of the story is that in order to be eligible for the title bout, Mäki needed to lose several kilos to fit into the weight category. Though the film depicts his struggle to get the weight off, the film-maker does not press the issue that the weight-loss was substantial enough that it could have actually been a decisive factor in Mäki’s weak performance (he goes down in the second round). Instead, the film remains – like Mäki himself – more interested in the love story. In other words, Mäki doesn’t care too much about the loss, so neither does the film. He is happy to be relieved of the pomp, pageantry, and media scrutiny of the big fight, and to be able to marry his girl and return to his normal life.
Shot beautifully in black and white to match the media of the era, Juho Kuosmanen’s debut feature is charming, funny, and deftly approached. In short, it’s a gem. And one can only hope for more from Kusomanen (and his leads) in the near future.
And with that, another TIFF is Finnished. Apologies to Sweden for its lack of representation here. And for the pun.