A review of “Elling” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ****

Rating: R for language, adult situations. In Norwegian with English subtitles

Run Time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

 

 

One of five precious Academy Award nominations for 2001 Best Foreign Film went to this sweetheart of a comedy from Norway.  To label it deserving is understatement.

Per Christian Ellefsen and Sven Nordin reprise their Norwegian stage roles as state mental hospital roommates Elling and Kjell Bjarne, a phobic “mama’s boy” unable to function following his mother’s death, and a hulking, virginal man-child obsessed with getting laid.  When the surprisingly accommodating Norwegian welfare system finds the pair ostensibly “cured”, it places them in a government-funded apartment in Oslo, with a hip social-worker (Jorgen Langhelle) as their mentor and touchstone.

The relocation is disastrous.  Elling is borderline agoraphobic, refusing to leave the apartment or answer the phone. Kjell Bjarne isn’t a lot better, mustering up the nerve to tackle the grocery store only when starvation takes hold.  Finally the pair screw up the courage to brave a restaurant, it taking every ounce of Elling’s will to cross the restaurant floor to reach the public restroom. 

Persnickety and penurious quirks aside, Elling is dear little pixie of a man.  He explains away his glaring inadequacies with charming, Norwegian-lilted quips such as “mother handled the practical matters, I was in charge of ideology”.  The fish-out-of-water scenario plays like a Norwegian version of “The Odd Couple”, without the customary (and annoying) slapstick. 

Separation anxiety and a laundry list of fears ultimately give way to thrilling self-discovery. Life’s simpler apostles work hard at transforming themselves into productive oddballs, venturing beyond their self-imposed barriers and discovering that life isn’t the scary proposition they had always imagined.

The subtle strength of “Elling” is that, despite its comic undertones, it never loses touch with the reality of the grim situation.  Ellefsen is a revelation as the fastidious delight of a man who grows from a taut, flesh-and-bones bundle of issues to a plucky, enigmatic artist with a lot to give. Nordin’s gentle giant is a testimony to lost innocence.  A sweet confection of a film.