directed by Petter Naess
(First Look, 2001)

Elling is a 40-year-old Norwegian man who lived with his mother until her death, at which point he moved into one of her closets, where he was eventually discovered by the state of Norway. Kjell Bjarne is a 40-year-old of similar nationality but much less brain who has spent most of his four decades lamenting his virginity.

How they become roommates at a Norwegian mental hospital is never made entirely clear. What is clear, though, is the state of Norway's plan for them: they're discharged together into a "welfare apartment" in Oslo, where they are to begin the tortuous road back to the real world under the guiding hand of a not-too-social social worker named Frank Asli.

From the outset, it's clear that neither Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen) or Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin) is up to or interested in the task. But what the state of Norway has joined together, no man is about to tear asunder, especially under the watchful eyes of Asli (Jorgen Langhelle).

Their social worker quickly gives them a lesson in the use of the telephone, and Elling and Kjell Bjarne -- Elling never calls him by only one name -- just as quickly discover the joys of phone sex.

And thus is set the course for one of the sweetest, funniest films ever to cross the Atlantic.

Petter Naess's Elling is a film of Chaplinesque simplicity, based on the premise that if you follow two very quirky codependent characters around, some very funny things are bound to happen. And it works, in part because Naess allows the humor to flow from the characters, and in part because of his keen visual sense: the metal clothes hanger Elling and Kjell Bjarne use for their radio antenna tells you all you need to know about their readiness for the world.

Ultimately, however, it's the pursuit of their dreams that brings Elling and Kjell to the brink of madness, and hilarity.

It begins when the tee-totalling Elling decides to attend a poetry meeting at a bar he sees advertised in the newspaper. Just getting there turns out to be an odyssey in itself.

The fallout is just as amusing: not only does he meet an older man (Per Christensen) he begins to describe as "his drinking buddy," but he decides to embark on a career as an underground poet, the Enigmatic "E." And he chooses for himself a most unlikely venue -- one you'll miss if you're not paying close attention.

Meanwhile, Kjell -- a kind of Norwegian Victor McLaglen, if such a thing is possible -- begins the process of deflowering himself, beginning with a chance encounter on Christmas Eve with their upstairs neighbor, the seduced-and-abandoned Reidun (Marit Pia Jacobsen). Again, the process isn't pretty, but it's full of wisdom and good humor.

Elling is one of those rare films that has the power to surprise and delight viewers at every turn. While their ultimate goals may become transparent, the paths by which Elling and Bjarne get there is always a mystery until the very last moment.

Granted, it's a small film, but it has big things to say. And those things have resonated with audiences around the world.

Naess's film has won awards in Warsaw, Stockholm, San Sebastian and Seattle. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2002 as Best Foreign Language Film, and an English-language version is reportedly in production.

My advice is to check out the original. Films like this rarely come along twice.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 31 July 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.