Dir: Petter Naess. Norway. 2001. 90 mins.
Playing in the Zabaltegi (New Directors) programme at San Sebastian, this sweet-tempered comedy about two eccentrics carving an unusual niche for themselves in society is a modest audience-pleaser which won the Youth Jury award by a comfortable margin and was given a Special Mention by the New Directors Jury. The film itself could occupy a snug berth in minor art-house venues and on the small screen; it has already been a sizeable critical and popular hit in Norway, where it has taken $4.7m (Nor Krone 41.1m) after 29 weeks from a maximum of 30 screens. Among distributors interested in Elling in San Sebastian was Golem, which picked up the Spanish rights.
The story is narrated by Elling himself (Per Chistian Ellefsen), a gentle lost soul in his thirties who's a few sandwiches short of a smorgasbrod. In a brief prologue, he explains how he has spent his entire adult life under his mother's wing and found it difficult to cope with her death. After a mental breakdown, he spent two years in a psychiatric hospital, where he shared a room with Kjell (Svenn Nordin), a fellow inmate.
The story proper begins when the time comes for the two men to leave the safety of the institution and, very reluctantly, to reintegrate themselves into the outside world. Assigned an apartment together under the no-nonsense supervision of their sardonic social worker (Jorgen Langhelle), they look like a classic odd-couple combination: the lumbering, heavy-drinking, lecherous Kvell is as much of a slob as the rather camp Elling is prissy and fastidious. But it's clear that their relationship is based on great unspoken affection and mutual dependency.
At first the rituals of everyday life pose a massive challenge. A trip to the corner shop is a terrifying experience, as is answering the telephone. But gradually they notch up tiny triumphs, managing to prepare rudimentary meals, celebrating a quiet Christmas together and eventually running up huge phone bills on porn phone lines.
When Kjell falls in love with an alcoholic neighbour (Margit Pia Jacobsen) who has been left pregnant by her previous lover, Elling is briefly resentful. But he has already been establishing himself as a leading light of the neighbourhood literary circle, where he befriends a local intellectual. Slipping his own efforts into the packets of supermarket goods which he then puts back on the shelves, Elling even finds acclaim as an underground writer known, magnificently, as the "sauerkraut poet".
After a slightly uneasy start, in which it seems as if the film is setting out to make fun of mental illness or handicap, director Petter Naess develops a mood of infectious warmth and generosity: in fact, the whole point of the piece is a kind of plea for tolerance. These people appear at first like sad misfits, but they all have the potential to find social acceptance and a place for themselves, however unconventional.
Technical credits are all extremely modest, but the characters and story (which does not remain too anchored to its origins, as a book and subsequently a stage production) behave in unpredictable and diverting ways and Naess, in his second feature outing after the comedy Absolute Hangover, keeps the action moving along briskly.
Prod co: Maipo Film og TV Produksjon
Co prods: Audiovisualt Produksjonsfond, Nordisk Film og TV Fond
Nor dist: UIP
Int'l Sales: Trust Film
Prod: Dag Alveberg.
Scr: Axel Hellstenius, based on the novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen
Cinematography: Svein Krovel
Prod des: Harald Egede Nissen
Ed: Inge-Lise Langfeldt
Music: Lars Lillo Stenberg
Main cast: Per Christian Ellefsen, Svenn Nordin, Per Christensen, Jorgen Langhelle, Marit Pia Jacobsen.