26 May 2008
I knew almost nothing about the Norwegian film Reprise before going into the theatre, which is a good thing, because if anybody had told me its central characters are a couple of young novelists, one of whom struggles with mental illness, I would have said, "No thanks, I'll wait for the DVD" and I would have missed the best movie I've seen in months.
Before I get into what makes Reprise so good, I have to pause to describe the audience I and my companion were stuck in while watching the film. We arrived at Lincoln Plaza half an hour before the show, got tickets, and then waited in what seemed, even for New York, a pretty long line for an afternoon on a beautiful day. We also seemed to be the youngest people in the line, which also seemed odd, because, as far as we knew, this was more the sort of movie to attract a crowd of hipster Cinema Studies majors than, well, grandparents -- but this is New York, after all, and if there's anywhere in the world where grandparents will turn out en masse for a Norwegian movie about angsty twenty-somethings, New York is it.
This would have been simply amusing if, no more than fifteen minutes into Reprise, it had not become very clear that many of the audience members expected something different from the movie than what they were getting, and when they were not sighing, coughing, shuffling their feet, checking their phones (really!), or falling asleep on my shoulder (really!), the people around us were whispering loudly in an attempt to figure out some of the basic elements of the movie -- "Who is he?" "Did he have a car accident?" "Are they taking drugs?" "I thought this was in French -- it's not in French. What are they saying?"
(An aside to this aside: I am extremely sensitive to audience noise. Whispering, chewing, foot-tapping, fidgeting, candy-unwrapping, sighing, coughing -- all these sounds and movements cause me pain while watching movies and plays -- the person who introduced popcorn to movie theatres deserves, I believe, a circle of hell unto him- or herself -- but I know it's something that is peculiar to me, and so I seldom comment on it, thinking it's my own problem. My companion, though, who is a much more balanced and tolerant human being than I, commented on the awfulness of the audience the moment we left the theatre.)
It is a mystery to me what caused this particular audience to gather for this particular movie. (If you are telling people that Reprise is the Norwegian On Golden Pond, please stop doing so!) But despite being stuck in the middle of a dreadful audience, I was still able to find Reprise engaging and thought-provoking, and that fact alone is a testament to the movie's quality.
The basic story Reprise tells is a simple one: two friends in Oslo want to be writers. One, Phillip, succeeds quite quickly with his first novel, then falls in love with and starts dating Kari, a young woman who's not quite sure of her place in the world, and his love becomes obsessive and he begins acting irrationally, then has a breakdown. He recovers from his breakdown slowly and never completely. Meanwhile, Erik eventually publishes his first novel, dates a woman he's not really in love with, wonders what he's doing with his life, thinks about getting out of Oslo. Phillip and Erik's friends from elementary school days are also trying to figure out what to do with their lives.
I have now succeeded in making the movie sound, I expect, quite tedious. (You are starting to sympathize with the sighers and whisperers in the audience!) But Reprise is not tedious at all, and the reason is that the story is simply a skeleton of events that gives support to an exploration of the characters, and it is this exploration that provides the film's substance. The structure that writer-director Joachim Trier and his co-writer, Eskil Vogt, created emphasizes the vagaries of memory and yearning within the character's lives, and this structure and emphasis gives a coherence to what is, really, a fragmentary narrative. The first moments of the movie lay out Phillip and Erik's grand, naive hopes for the manuscripts they have written -- that the envelopes will be opened immediately by a top editor who will be awe-struck at the novels' brilliance and publish them to world-wide acclaim that will cause the writers to become cult heroes and even to inspire revolutions in African countries. The reality, of course, becomes more complex, but as we move through this reality, it is peppered with flashbacks and what-ifs, many of them rich with a playful and ironic tone, until, in the end, a narrator returns us to the future perfect tense of the first minutes, but now what is described are less naive scenes, scenes of friendship and maturity, and these scenes are imbued with suspense because we know that what we are watching is wished for, hoped for, ached for -- and by that point, we're wishing, hoping, and aching, too.
There is as wide a range of tones in Reprise as in any other movie I can think of, and it is a wonder they all work together so well. Again, this is a virtue of the film's structure. From early on, we are prepared for light and lively scenes contrasted with moments of quiet: long shots and slow movements, bits of meditation in amidst the storm of living. Hyper-stylization becomes a tool of realism: this is what it feels like to be alive, the movie says. The long, slow shadows of a bedroom at night juxtapose with the fluorescent glare in the bathroom. The vast, cataclysmic hustle and screech of a city's heavy-metal rush turns into a slow, almost static musical phrase from just far enough away to pull patterns from chaos. Friendship becomes smothering in a moment, love flips into obsession with an eyelid's flash, the joy of success shatters into a thousand shards of insanity after too many pressures on too many points. And vice versa and vice versa and vice versa.
The changing tones and the general lack of sentimentality are what allow Reprise to be far more than a movie about writers. That Phillip and Erik are writers is important because it allows their struggles with ideas to be dramatized -- their books become external versions of their philosophies and hopes, and when it becomes clear that Phillip has not read Erik's novel, the shock is stunning; Phillip's and Erik's struggles with the public reception of their writing dramatizes the conflict between their dreams and their realities; etc. -- but the movie stays away from offering a romanticized view of writers, and, indeed, through their friends shows that though writers may have struggles specific to their sort of occupation, it doesn't make their occupation a particularly enlightened one. (Although it does seem, at least in Norway, fairly lucrative -- both Phillip and Erik, despite not being bestselling writers, appear to be living off of their royalties. Though Erik lives with his mother, Phillip is somehow able to afford quite a nice apartment.) Though it is a very literate film -- how many movies namedrop Maurice Blanchot? -- it never feels pretentious (which is not to say its characters, being young, are not sometimes pretentious), because it never privileges writers above other human beings. There's nothing mystical or romantic about the literary life in Reprise, nor is it the only life there is.
Reprise does so many things well that I could go on and on and on (the acting, for instance, is a wonder), but I'll point briefly to two elements: The film's portrayal of long-term friendship and its handling of mental illness.
Phillip and Erik have been friends since elementary school, and they have other friends who go back nearly as long. Friendships that last through childhood and into adulthood are strange, wondrous things. We wake up one day and discover that our best friends, the people who know us most deeply, are not people we might ever have sought out now, as adults. Our interests are different, our perspectives on the world, our senses of humor and etiquette -- and yet the bond is deeper than anything we could deliberately cultivate with people more like who we have turned out to be. Reprise presents just this sort of friendship, and it does so with rare complexity and subtlety, showing the group from within and without -- the ragtag band that comes to get Phillip when he's ready to be released from the psychiatric ward and that never makes him feel anything but welcome and loved is the same group that causes horror in a smart assistant editor who, in a brief encounter, thinks that Erik's friends are uncouth and boorish.
Phillip's breakdown and never-quite-successful struggle to recover are presented with similar sensitivity. Movies about crazy artists are hardly a rarity, but movies that don't turn the character's illness into either a freakshow or a badge of outsider honor are, indeed, rare. The audience is not led to see Phillip's illness as a necessary aid to his creativity -- it seems, actually, to end his creativity. We are not encouraged to marvel at his oddness or wish that he would stop taking his meds so he could embrace his inner weirdo. Instead, we see a character who is more than a cliche. He lives, having good moments and bad, ordinary moments, moments of clarity even, and yet the shadow of the breakdown is always there. We see the strain on friends and family that the alienating force of illness causes -- the difficulty at communicating from or to a personal cosmos of pain, the soon-to-be-regretted actions brought on by the pressure obsession exerts on reality, the exhaustion attendant with constantly second-guessing your perceptions. The effect, emotionally, is more complex and profound than anything offered by the more melodramatic representations of mental illness we usually get in movies.
There are many other complexities to the film as well -- for instance, there is an ongoing but understated exploration of gender relations (it's a movie about heterosexual men, yes, but it never pretends their immaturity about women or sexuality is anything other than immature, and the women in the film call the men on their bullshit) -- but I fear that continuing to celebrate its many extraordinary pieces will distract from the effect of the film as a whole, because what is most extraordinary about Reprise is not that it contains smart and artfully crafted pieces, but that the pieces all join together in a whole that is more artful, evocative, and affecting than any discussion of the pieces can convey.