It’s not often you get the chance to see a Norwegian film at the cinema, let alone a Norwegian comedy. But this little film has snowballed from winning the Best New Director Award and Youth Jury Award at the 2001 San Sebastian Film Festival, all the way to an Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Film and a theatrical release in Britain. The rights to the film have also been bought up by Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street Productions in order to produce an American re-make. The fuss Elling has generated is certainly deserved.
Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen) is a middle-aged man with psychological problems who has always lived with his mother, to whom he is totally devoted. After she dies he is discovered by the police and taken to a psychiatric home where he finds himself sharing a room with the Obelix-esque Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin), whom he nicknames ‘The Orangutan’. After a couple of years they are given their own flat in Oslo, under the supervision of social worker Frank Åsli (Jørgen Langhelle), to try and re-assimilate themselves back into society. Elling, although very intelligent, is constantly stalked by his ‘two enemies, Paranoia and Anxiety’ and initially finds it hard to walk to the local shop or even answer the phone. Kjell Barne complements his flatmate’s brains with his brawn and huge heart, and proves able to blunder through life reasonably effectively if pointed in the right direction. Kjell’s main problem, however, is that he needs a woman and needs one fast, but has no idea where to find them or what to say to them. He and Elling discover the joy of phone sex-lines, but only until Frank presents them with the astronomic phone bill. However, his fortune changes when the drunken and pregnant Reidun (Marit Pia Jacobson) from the flat above collapses in the stairwell and needs Kjell to carry her to her flat. Elling, meanwhile, attempts to combat his personal demons by finding a hobby, and discovers a gift for poetry. Disgusted by a local contemporary poetry reading he attends, he decides to go underground by leaving his poems in boxes of sauerkraut in his local supermarket – and thus becomes ‘E’ the ‘Sauerkraut Poet’. Faced with the constant fear of Frank sending them back to the psychiatric home, Elling and Kjell help each other through their problems and come up with wonderfully eccentric solutions.
Elling is a genuinely moving and uplifting film. Fortunately the humour is never uncomfortable or derived from laughing at ‘the stupid handicapped people’. The simple honesty and kindness of their characters comes from their personality rather than their mental disabilities: indeed, there is never any medical diagnosis given to ‘explain’ their problems. As the director Petter Næss explains, ‘their problem is that they have no social experience, that nobody has ever really given them any opportunities’. Elling and Kjell’s problems are universally human, merely exaggerated versions of problems and anxieties which we all face. The acting is wonderful throughout, no doubt helped by the fact that most of the cast was taken from the successful stage version, also directed by Petter Næss. (Whenever Kjell head butts a wall or table out of frustration, you’re pretty convinced that he really did it). It is certainly the relationship between the two flatmates that makes this film so beautiful to watch. The moment where they exchange Christmas presents during their first Christmas together in the flat is one of the most simple and subtly moving scenes I have seen for a long time. In many ways this is a film about all the best aspects of humanity and the human spirit. Elling is guaranteed to leave you feeling happy, spiritually cleansed, and with a strange yearning to go to Norway.