There's a new film director shaking things up in Scandinavia, and his name isn't Igmar Bergman or Lars Van Trier. No longer is Scandinavian cinema required to deal strictly with philosophical and spiritual themes or be composed according to rigid DogMe rules. Breaking loose from somber gloom and doom comes Petter Næss with a light-hearted Norwegian comedy entitled Elling about two insane guys striving to eke out apartment living in downtown Oslo after their release from a state-run mental institution.
Self-described “mama's boy” Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen), can't cope with life after his mother's death; the 40 year old recluse allowed his mother to do everything for him, and just the thought of emerging from his apartment sends him into panic attacks. Elling gradually develops a friendship in the hospital with his roommate, Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin), a gentle brute obsessed with food and fucking. The man gorges on meat and potatoes and has a football linebacker stature to show for it, but he's only dreamed of women without ever talking to one—let alone touching one.
Norwegian therapy appears drug-free and down to earth, based primarily on group therapy, reality checks, and practical living challenges. Showing Norwegian socialism at its finest (all European films have political content, ya know), the two men are paired for transition to the real world with social worker Frank Åsli (Jørgen Langhelle). With a state-paid apartment and living expenses without a hoard of psychiatrists throwing around jargon like paranoid schizophrenic or bi-polar personality, Norway certainly seems far more progressive with mental health care.
Knowing the neuroses of the quirky characters adds humor to their exchanges, so Kjell Bjarne's “innocent” queries to Frank about his wife and whether she has any girlfriends in Olso elicit laughter, as do his initial reaction to the lack of food inside their new apartment. Similarly, the idea of going out to eat or walking around the corner to the store terrifies poor Elling. His enemies of dizziness and anxiety return on his first tentative attempt to shop, dropping him just outside the store. Everything outside the safety net of the mental institution becomes a problem, mostly to be avoided—separate bedrooms, answering the phone, going outside the apartment (in Elling's case), or simple conversation with a woman (most notably with Kjell Bjarne). Using 900 area code numbers to handle the phone and lady talk offers a laughably simple solution, but this is not what the social worker has in mind.
Things don't look great for adjusting to real life at first, but an inevitable breakthrough takes place with a drunken pregnant neighbor providing the impetus and inspiration. Before long the co-dependent roommates are both seeking their own identities and friendships with someone outside of the Norwegian governmental services. So for anyone needing additional messages beyond political and sociological inferences, there ya' go—a “feel good” concept that each person should independently become a whole person without relying on routines or other people and learn to face his fears.
But mostly Næss plays for laughs. The dysfunctional “odd couple” complement each other well, their strengths compensating for the other's weaknesses in very human ways. Energetic Kjell Bjarne pushes Elling to get out more while Elling supplies the verbal cleverness and clean underwear. Elling won't challenge your intellect or provoke profundity like most Scandinavian films that make it to the U.S. market, but its lightheartedness charms with goodhearted sincerity.
Just as the “Sauerkraut poet” sneaks his underground verses onto supermarket shelves to find an audience, this film quietly makes its way successfully on the arthouse circuit. Its 2001 Oscar™ nomination may come as a surprise, but recall that the lighthearted Amelie was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film that year. It's not pretentious, nor does the film follow more traditional Scandinavian paths to seek Freudian explanations for these characters' phobias. Elling really is about a couple of crazy guys, and it's therapeutic to laugh along with them.