There's nothing funny about mental illness, nor is there anything funny about what people who suffer from a mental illness experience on a daily basis. None of which has stopped the masters of sensitivity in Hollywood from making a variety of exploitive movies that laugh at peoples' suffering and perpetuate stereotypes. So it was with a measure of trepidation that I began to watch the Norwegian film Elling.
Nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film in 2001, Elling tells the story of two men who are deemed ready to begin their integration back into society after a stay in a state mental institution. Elling (played by Per Christian Ellefsen) and Kjell Bjarne (played by Sven Nordin) had been roommates while institutionalized, and so it seemed only natural that they continue that relationship on the outside.
Physically the two characters are as different as night and day; Elling is small and neat, while Kjell Bjarne is large and sloppy. Although we are never given a diagnosis for the conditions either man was institutionalized for, we do know that Elling had lived at home with his mother until she died and is terrified of the world outside the walls of wherever he lives. Kjell Bjarne, on the other hand, is able to handle leaving the apartment, he just doesn't appear to be firing on all cylinders and his emotional development seems to have stalled somewhere in early adolescence.
Throughout the course of the movie we follow the two from their first tentative interactions with the world outside their apartment door, to a $4000 phone sex bill, to actual contact with other human beings. With Elling as our guide – his character supplies occasional narration – we gain valuable lessons in perspective that are both humorous and insightful: "Some people go skiing in the North Pole, while I have problems just crossing a restaurant floor." That one line of dialogue says more about what a person suffering from persistent anxiety experiences every day than an entire textbook on the subject could ever communicate.
Per Christian Ellefsen's depiction of Elling is wonderful as he is able to somehow make the performance funny without the humour ever being at Elling's expense. True, he is fussy, uptight, insecure, and looks like he could be scared of his own shadow, but that just makes the triumph of going grocery shopping on his own for the first time that much more heroic. As mentioned earlier, Elling also provides narration for the movie, so it is told from his point of view, but sometimes the contrast between what Elling "thinks" and what reality shows provides for some lovely moments of humour. His attempt to look cool by wearing a trench coat and sunglasses makes him look more like a cross between a dirty old man and the secret police.
Our first impression of Sven Nordin's Kjell Bjarne is that of an oaf whose interests in life seem limited to food and sex. Yet we quickly find out that there is more to him than Elling first suspects. There is a beautiful scene that takes place when they are both still inside the sanatorium. Elling had been regaling Kjell Bjarne (he's always referred to by both names) with tales of his sexual exploits and adventures around the world. When one of the therapists gives Elling shit for making up stories – letting Kjell Bjarne know that they never happened and leaving Elling devastated and desolate – Kjell Bjarne waits for her to leave and than leans over to his friend and asks him to keep telling him the stories because he likes them. There was a gentleness and compassion that Sven Nordin was able to communicate in the delivery of that line that somehow told Elling that Kjell Bjarne had known all along the stories were made up, but that it hadn't mattered then and it didn't matter now.
Of course Kjell Bjarne is more than just a friendly oaf, and is given to occasional violent outbursts. But as the outbursts are usually directed at himself and taken out on inanimate objects there is never any impression that he is a threat to anyone. They are most often the result of his frustration with his own inability to express emotions or to communicate with others. Of course on occasion Elling is the cause of his frustration as he's unable to understand that Elling might be jealous of Kjell Bjarne's burgeoning relationship with their upstairs neighbour.
There are three other characters of note in the movie; the upstairs neighbour, Reidun (Marit Pia Jacobsen), who Kjell Bjarne falls in love with; Alfons Jorgensen (Per Christensen), a poet who becomes Elling's mentor and friend; and the boys' social worker, Frank Asli (Jorgen Langhelle). Each of these characters serve as barometers of sorts for us to gauge how well the boys are actually doing in terms of their rehabilitation. What I found most interesting about the way the development of the relationships were depicted was how the obstacles faced by Elling and Kjell Bjarne in establishing their friendships were what you and I would experience in similar circumstances.
Who hasn't experienced the fear of not knowing what to say on a first date? Who hasn't felt insecurity when making a new friend? Wondering whether or not they like you or how to go about asking if they want to get together? Watching the two men go through those stages in the movie, it is easy to identify with what they are feeling, and almost as rewarding to experience their success as it would be our own in the same situation.
The film's director, Peter Naess, wrote that he didn't want to make a movie about psychiatry, which is why neither character has any particular diagnosis, but to examine the lives of two people who have no social experience and who nobody has ever given an opportunity to or had any faith in. His objective was to emphasize the possibilities and human qualities of the two men; to get beyond and behind the label of mental illness.
There's no question in my mind that he succeeded in his objective as the movie is first and foremost a wonderful depiction of the friendship between the two characters and the things they do to help each other. While we may on occasion laugh at their behaviour, the humour is never malicious or belittling. What Peter Naess and the actors in this movie have given us is less a movie about mental health, and more a movie about the joys and sadness of being human.
Elling is a wonderful movie, with beautiful acting, and a funny, genuinely heart-warming story. Don't let the fact that it's in Norwegian with English subtitles deter you from either renting or buying a copy of this on DVD. The subtitles are so well done that after the first couple of minutes of the movie you forget you're reading while watching, and can just get on with enjoying a good movie.