When the police discover the title character of Elling
(Ellefsen), he is curled inside a cupboard in a fetal
position. His mother has just died. A recluse and self-declared
“mama’s boy” who lived with her all his life, 40-something
Elling is so far removed from the world at large that he doesn’t
even know how to use a telephone. “Mother always did that,”
he sadly explains.
They send him to live in a mental institution until he and
his roommate, Kjell Bjarne (Nordin), a massive, sexually
obsessed Gerard Depardieu look-alike, are given an
apartment together in Oslo and a shot at “independent living.”
The movie details their trials and tribulations as they attempt
to adapt to “normal” life. Elling can barely go to the grocery
store without collapsing and Kjell struggles mightily with
his obsessions. How are these men going to survive?
I was skeptical about Elling, a massive hit in its
home country, because I wondered if I could really enjoy a
“Norwegian comedy about the mentally ill.” How enjoyable does
that really sound? Nor is exploitation my idea of entertainment.
I dreaded the familiar spectacle of cute ’n’ kooky outsiders
presented for “normal” audiences to ridicule, then pity. Or
would Elling be the kind of film which would inspire
me by making me feel superior to loveable zanies struggling
with the activities most of the movie’s audience effortlessly
performs every day, a “there but for the grace of God go I”
It did not help matters that I had recently seen a preview
of One Hour Photo, in which Robin Williams plays
a mentally unstable photo clerk who stalks an unsuspecting
family. The whole point of the movie, its entertainment value,
was for the audience to wait in suspense to see exactly when
and how the clerk would completely lose his mind, and slaughter
the family in a bloody finale.
Mental illness in film is rarely treated as a complex process,
but rather as a route to a very limited set of pre-determined
ends—creating the fear-inducing psycho or the tear-inducing
innocent. Ghettoizing certain movies as heartwarmingly sentimental
and comic is merely the flipside of ghettoizing them as sexually
deviant or ultra-violent. A movie theater is no place for
a moral purist, but I don’t see the need to check my ethics
at the door when I see a film so I can flaunt my open-mindedness
and moral flexibility instead.
Elling provides ample opportunity to question one’s
own approach to the subject of mental illness and laugh
at the same time. The film repeatedly invites audience members
to suspect the worst, that its borderline protagonists are
about to lose control. Early in the film, Kjell locks himself
in their new bathroom, where he compulsively and bizarrely
cuts the heads off dozens of matches. He refuses to tell Elling
what he is doing and the audience doesn’t know either. Is
he about to have a fit of some kind, is he going psycho?
In fact, Kjell is making a three-dimensional model house
out of the matchsticks to present to Elling as a Christmas
present, his thoughtful gift to the lifelong agoraphobic.
And what does Elling give his sex-obsessed roommate in exchange?
A pornographic watch with a naked woman painted on its face,
the perfect present for a mentally ill person with sexual
problems. They are both completely delighted with their gifts.
Their first Christmas together is a huge success.
This lightly surreal touch creates many genuinely comic,
but never condescending, scenes as supposed symptoms of impending
mental crisis are revealed as constructive and unthreatening.
The joke is more on audience expectations and fears than on
the characters themselves and the result is very funny and
Perhaps I could complain that Elling fails to accurately
represent the struggles that many people with mental illness
really do go through—maybe the film’s characters have it too
easy. But the movie doesn’t represent the men’s growth as
a painless process—on the contrary. As the roommates dine
together for the first time in a restaurant, Elling needs
to use the men’s room, but public spaces petrify him. “Some
people go skiing in the North Pole,” he notes, “while I have
problems just crossing the restaurant floor.” There is not
a single scene in this film in which Elling or Kjell do not
have to negotiate a personal challenge of some kind, and it
is not always a smooth or successful process.
Thanks to the great actors who play them, both characters
are fully dimensional rather than stereotypical. Kjell refuses
to bathe, eats like a pig, and bangs his head against the
wall when excited or upset. Elling can be a pissy pill, becoming
jealous and temperamental when Kjell finally finds a lover
because Elling is afraid to lose his friend. Both men also
repeatedly perform acts of compassion and kindness for other
people and each other.
Nor does Elling overvalue normality by magically curing
its protagonists of all their ills, and in this sense, it
is genuinely inspiring. Each man becomes integrated into the
larger world in his own way without the film becoming gooey
or grotesque. Elling, for example, never fully comes out of
his shell, although he becomes vastly less isolated. He discovers
he has a gift for writing poetry, but refuses to publish,
opting instead to smuggle his work into the world by stuffing
it in random boxes of food at the supermarket. “I am E. the
underground poet! I am still a mama’s boy!” he declares, reserving
his right to stubbornly dictate his own boundaries and remain
a recluse on his own terms. Is Elling healthy or unhealthy?
Or do we need to invent other terms to describe his experience?