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Elling (R)
FirstLook Pictures
Official Site
Director: Petter Naess
Producers: Dag Alveberg
Written by: Axel Hellstenius (based on the book by Ingvar Ambjornsen)
Cast: Per Christian Ellefsen, Sven Nordin, Per Christiansen, Jorgen Langhelle, Marit Pia Jacobsen


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” extravaganza?

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 human.

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?

—Ellen Whittier


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