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What is it about the psychologically challenged that we can all relate to so well? Though not everyone is in need of the state’s support to take care of themselves, I think we recognize in those that do the parts of our own psyches that sometimes feel hard-pressed to bear up to the challenges of living. Perhaps this is the allure of Elling, a delightful and moving film about two Norwegian nutters struggling to learn how to live normal lives (“normal” defined as “not needing to remain in the state’s care and not likely to return to it in the future”).
Elling, the character played by Per Christian Ellefsen calls himself a “mama’s boy.” Having grown to late middle age in the sole company of his mother, Elling is totally unprepared for the rest of his life when his mother dies. At the beginning of the film, the Norwegian authorities find him living in a closet in his mother’s garbage-strewn apartment, unwilling to be helped to a state asylum. Since his mother always took care of all practical aspects of life--while he was in charge of ideas and thoughts--he is beside himself with fear and nausea most of the time. Two years in a state asylum helps him adjust somewhat. At the very least, it brings him into friendship with Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin), an ape of a man, not much better adapted to life on the outside than Elling himself.
Though they find comfort in the routine and shelter of the state asylum, the state can’t support them forever and puts them in a program to get back to living regular lives. The pair is given an apartment in Oslo and put in the care of caseworker Frank. He’s there to support their progress, but also to make sure that they make progress. The deal is stern: they learn to live normally, or they lose the state-sponsored apartment. It’s tough love, and, as such, it gets results.
To witness the fear that Elling experiences merely leaving his house, walking down the street, entering a restaurant, walking past people, is to relive those moments of self-consciousness in our own memories. Though most of us are able to get past feelings of anxiety, swatting them away like pesky flies or moving through them like a passing fog, Elling’s grapplings with them are much more visceral and daunting. It’s no wonder we root for him: we’ve been in parallel, if less extreme, variations, and now we can fill the role of the one who bestows the encouraging pat on the back, as we would have wished for someone to do with us.
And if the viewer can’t relate to Elling’s particular combination of neuroses, then certainly Kjell Bjarne’s complementary set might offer something. For him, the challenges are self-hatred stemming from a childhood of abuse and neglect. Everyone treats him like an imbecile until even he himself loses sight of his considerable gifts: formidable manual skill and an unsinkable soul. What drives Kjell Bjarne is constant appetite for both food and sex. As a forty-year-old virgin, his greatest desire is to be with a woman.
Kjell Bjarne’s struggle is internal while Elling’s is external. For Kjell, the world holds no fear: he’s big and durable. But his self-esteem is so shattered, that it takes considerable encouragement, and a lot of luck, to get him blooming again. For Elling, his mind is a quiet sanctuary that must travel through the perilous world. These are my interpretations, incidentally. The movie wastes no time philosophizing or conjecturing; it just tells the story.
It is hilarious to see Elling and Kjell Bjarne struggle with life, and fun to witness their tribulations around telephones, dining out, shopping: things that most of us take for granted. We don’t laugh at these characters, but with them. I don’t think I’ll spoil the film by saying that they have considerable success in their reintegration to society. Elling manages to make a friend besides Kjell Bjarne, or as he puts it, “a friend that the state didn’t have to provide to me.”
Both characters undergo a few epiphanies, and the scenes are extremely funny. The Mrs. and I both laughed a lot. It’s a feel-good movie, finally, but it doesn’t rely on sentimentality or cliché. Furthermore, it is so far beyond a movie like Dumb and Dumber that mentioning that inferior film is really an injustice: Elling doesn’t make a joke of its characters only to root for them in the end. Instead, it treats its characters with tenderness that lets you know from the start that they will, somehow, succeed. Yet it remains surprising how they manage to do so.
This Academy-Award nominee earns my vote. It’s a great movie, and it’s going on my top picks list.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.