An Obsession with Obsession: Nordic Cinema, 2019-2022

by George Kowalik Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 14 minutes (3252 words)

About Endlessness, (Photo source, Artificial Eye)

Whether actively initiated, self-consciously coined, or retrospectively attributed, film history has seen a variety of movements defined by mutual interests or shared techniques. The most famous of these include postwar Italian neorealism (discussed at the time by critics associated with the magazine Cinema), the 1950s-60s French New Wave (which emerged in similar fashion, thanks to Cahiers du cinema), and Dogme 95 (which Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg founded after creating the “Dogme 95 Manifesto”). Often, discernible movements are not formally announced or not connected to a specific historical event. This essay suggests that Nordic cinema more broadly – in Denmark but also Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden – from 2019 to 2022 can be considered as a discrete cinematic movement. Using the evidence of a ten-film sample, Nordic works in these four years can be linked thematically, even if neither a coterie of friendship nor a series of collaborations can be identified between the filmmakers responsible for them. With various approaches and using different genres, these films have all grappled with the theme of obsession, in the form of fate, love, and/or monomania. Obsession has been given the context of both reciprocated romantic love and threat or abuse – that is, obsession with someone that does not want the attention. In these films, forms of obsession are frequently driven by the sense that their future trajectories have already been mapped out, are predetermined.

The films these claims can be made for are: About Endlessness (Roy Andersson, 2019), A White, White Day (Hlynur Pálmason, 2019), Another Round (Vinterberg, 2020), Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen, 2021), The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, 2021), Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Östlund, 2022), Godland (Pálmason, 2022), Sick of Myself (Kristoffer Borgli, 2022), Speak No Evil (Christian Tafdrup, 2022), and Hatching (Hanna Bergholm, 2022). These works cover being an immigrant in one of these countries (Flee and its Danish setting), moving between different Nordic countries (Godland’s journey from Denmark to Iceland), and living a life between languages (Flee, Godland, Speak No Evil). But these ten films can perhaps best be grouped under the categories of comedy, setting, death, and horror, which I will look at through the specific lens of the films that prioritise each of these interests. Comedy has an uneasy but important position within this constellation of recent Nordic films; the horror genre directly facilitates narratives of fate, love, and monomania; and the subject of death offers some form of middle ground between black comedy and horror.

Obsessed with Laughing

Andersson’s About Endlessness is just one of six feature films by the Swedish auteur in over fifty years. Despite the infrequency, Andersson’s mannerisms of deadpan humour, long takes, ghostly pale colour palates (and actor makeup), and existential crisis have become a signature style. About Endlessness is in some ways the synthesis of everything good about Andersson’s filmmaking – as well as the above, this includes an emphasis on tragicomedy and an interest in blending the hyperreal and the banal. Andersson’s sixth film also goes beyond his earlier five, offering two framing devices that prop his stylistics up and tie his mosaic story structure (of different vignettes, featuring different characters) together. About Endlessness employs voiceover narration and offers a recurring image that might suggest who is speaking. The film’s poster – a man flying through the grey sky, on his side, with a woman wrapped in his arms – introduces and then intermissions the film, which runs for only seventy-eight minutes as if to highlight the brevity of flying in the sky, as if the couple are telling us these stories with a limited period of time before they either fall or land. Their love is unspoken but on full display as they hold on tightly during flight, because despite their imminent fall or landing, their obsession for both each other and the stories of the people on the ground, in the world they can see below, is endless.

While About Endlessness’ vignettes of war-torn Germany (from military and civilian perspectives) may seem pessimistic or hopeless beneath their subversive comedic surfaces, the frame tale potentially responsible for them is the opposite. Released a year later and directed by Vinterberg, Another Round also laughs about difficulty and struggle. The film involves four high school teachers who, inspired by Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, conduct a social experiment where they consume specific quantities of alcohol on a daily basis to see how it impacts their personal and professional lives. As the film goes on, we learn the catch: each of the four men was unhappy about an aspect of their life going in to the experiment. The protagonist of the four – Martin (played by Mads Mikkelsen) – was depressed and felt unfulfilled by his wife and children, and uninspired by his professional relationships with students in the classroom. As Martin and his colleagues continue to sneak alcohol into work and the experiment escalates, he only becomes more disconnected from his wife. The more he obsesses over the challenge, the less he cares about his family, which culminates in separating from his wife after finding out that she has been having an affair. Martin asks her: “Are you also having fun with someone other than me?” She tells him: “I couldn’t just sit here and wait for you.” Unlike About Endlessness’ hopeful frame tale in which the laughing has stopped, Another Round laughs uncomfortably with but then at its characters, who are destined to eat each other alive as they drink to oblivion. Their obsessions deflect and ricochet off one another as they find themselves unable to really love anything/one, not even themselves.

Flee is a film in which laughs must be earned. Like its protagonist, the spectator of Rasmussen’s film must navigate adversity before they can smile. This persistence becomes an obsession – in reaching hope, in seeing better days. Matching this tonal hybridity with its treatment of genre, Rasmussen’s unconventional animated documentary tells the true story of Amin Nawabi: a 36-year-old academic who is getting married to his long-time boyfriend two decades after arriving in Denmark as an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan. The film moves between Rasmussen’s interview with Amin (who he has known since they were teenagers) and recreations of the memories Amin is discussing. This fluctuation between present-day Denmark and war-torn 1980s Kabul is interspersed with archival footage, highlighting how Amin’s remarkable story of fleeing the Middle East during the ten-year Soviet-Afghan war is only one of many. Rasmussen uses the documentary to give a voice to (and turn the volume up for) survivors like Amin, but by experimenting with the form captures the difficulty Amin has experienced coming to terms with his past, wanting to externalise and tell it but not knowing how to. Flee helps him overcome this, because prior to making the film Amin had even kept his past a secret from his boyfriend, Kasper. The secret threatens to separate them, and must be converted from trauma into acceptance before it can bind them together, leading to marrying and buying a house at the end of the film. Amin and Kasper only remember how to laugh together at this point, because the smiles throughout the film are sparse. Amin only has them in isolated moments, such as his older brother Abbas taking him to a gay club after reassuring him that his family always knew his sexuality, to the soundtrack of a-ha’s “Take on Me.” Flee therefore differs from About Endlessness and Another Round, because comedy is the destination of its character’s obsession with learning to live with his past.

Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness aligns with Another Round for the way it laughs at its characters’ expense, at their various superficial obsessions – with money, material possessions, and leisure. By design, it does not contain the hope that About Endlessness and Flee are driven by or towards. Triangle of Sadness forewarns this in its title, and its first act establishes how vanity and self-importance are the defining reasons for its pessimism. Love is something being sucked out of rooms and lives, rather than a productive platform for obsession to build on. Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean) are a couple who seem deeply unhappy together. As they argue at a restaurant and then back at their hotel over wealth and gender roles at the beginning of the film, Carl tells his girlfriend that “there comes a point where I do feel used.” But Carl is equally guilty of using her, and this stubborn impasse is given a bigger stage when the couple join a cruise for the super-rich. The yacht and later a desert island become grand-scale symbols for Carl and Yaya’s rigid self-interests, their static lives of wealth but unfulfillment (which they share with other characters they become stranded with). Their hypocrisy and inability to change is spelled out in Östlund’s opening scene, in which Yaya asks Carl “Why are you so obsessed with money?” despite also being obsessed with it herself. Triangle of Sadness encourages us to laugh at these characters when their stubbornness literally holds them still in one place, cut off from the rest of the world, with dwindling food and water supplies.       

The Romance of Oslo       

The Worst Person in the World and Sick of Myself apply the theme of obsession to a specific setting: Norway’s capital city, Oslo. The unexpected but deep love shared by Julie (Renate Reinsve) and Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) in Worst Person – which later turns into heartbreak – is tied to the city where they meet. The thirty-somethings get talking at a party when they are both in relationships, but cross paths again in the sprawling, open city – first in the bookshop Julie is working at, then at a coffee shop. The second of these is the film’s most showstopping moment. Julie’s current boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) pours coffee for them in their apartment, but after seeming to have an epiphany Julie stands up, turns the light off in the kitchen, and time inexplicably stands still. She runs out of the apartment and into the city, passing people and vehicles, which all are all frozen still too. She arrives at the coffee shop, finds Eivind, and time resumes. They spend the day and night together, and as they part ways the next morning time stops again and Julie runs back to Aksel, before turning the light back on, letting him finish pouring the coffee, then telling him she wants to break up. It is the most explicit example of Trier’s film letting obsession steer its form, which here manifests as surrealist aesthetics and dream logic, with Oslo their stage. Julie is determined to go with her impulse and pursue someone who, after a chance encounter, she already knows she loves – determined to the extent that she can break the rules of reality to ensure the obsession leads to something. It is only later, after moving in together and getting pregnant, that the relationship with Eivind falls apart. Before then, Julie is free to do the impossible, to run, to love.

Sick of Myself uses its Oslo setting differently. The film’s central couple, Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and Thomas (Eirik Sæther), are in a toxic, competitive relationship. A barista, Signe grows jealous of Thomas, a sculpture artist, after his art made from stolen furniture receives significant attention. Signe tries to get a dog to attack her and fakes an allergic reaction at a dinner celebrating Thomas landing a major exhibition. Signe’s efforts to derail their relationship and careers culminate in taking a Russian anti-anxiety medication which has been recalled after leading to severe skin disease. Their bizarre, destructive relationship – of Signe’s making – is encapsulated in a scene where Thomas describes Signe’s imagined funeral to her during foreplay, at her request. The scene also captures the bleak, deadpan comedy Borgli’s film is interested in. The version of obsession at the centre of this is therefore fittingly unhinged and monomanic; Signe becomes fixated on dragging the life around her down as she herself spirals. Like Worst Person, despite the central romantic relationship in Trier’s film being couched in an entirely different tone, this obsession is projected onto Oslo and writ large. In coffee shops but also medical facilities (after Signe’s self-inflicted condition worsens), Norway’s capital city gives obsession space to escalate, providing physical boundaries either to break out of or be trapped within.     

Pálmason’s Films About Death

In Icelandic cinema, Pálmason’s A White, White Day and Godland push obsession to its breaking point, beyond whatever boundaries of genre, narrative, or setting it could be confined to. In different ways, these two films are constructed around death, either as a fixed, final endpoint or the beginning of a new life for those left behind by the person who dies. A White, White Day follows police chief Ingimundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) as he tracks down the man his recently deceased wife was having an affair with. An alternative to the grief counselling Ingimindur participates in, this dangerous obsession goes to extreme lengths, with him even joining this man’s football club and striking up a fake friendship. The film differs from Godland, which swaps the present day for the late 19th century and sees Lucas (Elliott Crosset), a Lutherian priest from Denmark, sent to Iceland to oversee the establishment of a new parish church. The journey is arduous and Lucas’ translator dies after drowning during it. Sigurðsson plays Ragnar, the journey guide who becomes Lucas’ rival due to his distrust of Danes. Lucas’ patience and ability to adapt to the gruelling travel conditions are tested, as is his faith.

Lucas’ obsession with God declines and unravels as the film progresses, particularly when the group arrive at the Icelandic village where the church is to be built and he falls in love with Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne). After Ragnar kills his horse, Lucas kills Ragnar, but is himself killed by Anna’s father Carl (Jacob Lohmann) after his dislike of Lucas increases when Lucas neglects his religious duties within the village. These three deaths are spaced out in Godland’s runtime and create a torch-passing effect of anticipation and consequence. Lucas’ death is the natural ending of the story, which separates it from A White, White Day’s opposite trajectory, where death is the beginning and the fallout builds towards an anti-climax: Ingimindur does not go through with murdering the man his wife had an affair with, despite his meticulous planning for exactly this. In these films, obsession either creates a structural pattern pointing towards death, or it generates a process of moving further away from being able to kill. Godland demonstrates a passage through cold dehumanisation to reach the act of murder; A White, White Day dramatises the reluctant movement away from dark intention and back to human forgiveness.   

The Horror Genre 

A logical endpoint for this brief study is the way in which obsession is reworked once again within a pair of Nordic horror films released in 2022: Finnish filmmaker Bergholm’s Hatching and Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil, which interestingly focuses on a Danish family (sharing their actors’ and director’s nationality) who meet a Dutch family on holiday in Italy. Playing with its status as a Danish film even further, when the two families become friends and meet up at the Dutch couple’s country house, Speak No Evil plays out mostly in English. This third language becomes a gateway for the two couples and their lone children to understand each other better; but this potential devolves into uncertainty, unease, then peril once the Danish family realise the horrific intentions the Dutch couple have for them. The Danish couple learn that their new friends are actually serial killers who systematically deceive families in order to murder the parents and adopt their child, until they become bored of that child and the cycle resets. An offbeat black comedy about culture clashes and being lost in translation swiftly mutates into a horror film with shades of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976). Death is again the expected and fulfilled outcome of Speak No Evil, which is also the case for Hatching.

Hatching elevates obsession into supernatural territory. 12-year-old Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) retreats into solitude as her strict mother pushes her to follow in her footsteps and become a gymnast. After a crow flies into their house and ruins the living room, Tinja’s mother snaps its neck, but Tinja finds the bird alive in the woods that night after its cawing wakes her. She puts it out of its misery by beating it with a stone, but finds its egg and puts this under her pillow, allowing it to grow and eventually hatch her own doppelganger, who she must hide from her mother. Tinja’s obsession in having company almost wills the egg to hatch her a friend, but the process malfunctions and gives her a clone of herself: a creature she calls Alli (also Solalinna) and feeds like a pet. When Tinja is stabbed by her mother by mistake after trying to protect Alli, Alli becomes a replacement Tinja. Alli’s transformation from creature into human being complete, Hatching ends with one word from her to Tinja’s murderer: “Mother…” The film effectively closes its loop and negates the events of the last ninety minutes. Hatching can also be said to draw a line under Nordic cinema’s fascination with obsession from 2019-2022, because it removes the idea from the realm of realistic possibility. As fantasy, by its end Bergholm’s film has transcended the horror genre, rendered death’s rules or restrictions obsolete, moved beyond familial or romantic love, and stressed that obsession is no longer a laughing matter. As Alli replaces Tinja, even if the film cuts to its credits before we can spend time with this story reset, the pieces are in place for a new life, where the future forms obsession could take are undetermined. After this intersection of different genres and narratives, this meeting point of various Nordic filmmakers, the door is left open for a new cinematic moment or movement which can replace obsession with a different interest, theme, or hook. Like Alli becoming Tinja, traces of past film movements (whether canonised or speculated, as I have done) will remain. This overspill or torch-passing will carry on into the future for as long as cinema does.  

An Obsession with Obsession: Nordic Cinema, 2019-2022

George Kowalik has a PhD on contemporary fiction from King’s College London, where he also taught American literature for three years. He is both a short fiction and culture writer, and was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ 2019 Short Story Competition. His work can be found at the link above.

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Essays   danish cinema   horror cinema   nordic cinema   norwegian cinema   swedish cinema