We can’t have girlfriends anymore.
—Erik (Espen Klouman-Høiner)
Anguished and ambitious, the man-child writers in Joachim Trier’s Reprise imagine themselves into alternate lives. As the film begins, both Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Høiner) are poised, about to slip their just-completed manuscripts into a mailbox in Oslo. Each is suddenly catapulted forward in time, complete with voiceover narration in future tense. Both succeed wildly in this flash-forward dreamworld: one finds love with a publisher’s daughter, another has a book banned by the Vatican. Their brilliant adventures appear in flitty, fast images, tragic and comic, zippy and slick like Kip Pardue’s European tour in Rules of Attraction.
And then the film begins again. While Phillip’s book is indeed published immediately, Erik’s languishes in reader-reports hell. Much praised and pale, Philip signs books and frets over his seeming achievement. Though he feels almost saved when he finds true love with Kari (Viktoria Winge), this ideal fantasy is soon undercut when Phillip succumbs to a mental breakdown. Erik, meantime, settles down with a girlfriend whose face is obscured for nearly the entire film, suggesting not only her willingness to put up with his artistic genius antics and attachments to a set of self-loving former punk-rockers, but also the film’s running joke about men’s inability to fathom women—whether turned into objects of obsession like Kari or faceless sweethearts like Johanne (Rebekka Karijord).
The girls are hardly the writers’ focus anyway. Before they head off on their frighteningly separate tracks, Erik and Phillip share a passion for another, older writer, Sten Egil Dahl (Sigmund Sæverud), whose genius is so fragile that he has long since disappeared, his fans waiting impatiently, and for years, for a follow-up tome. As students, the boys rhapsodize over their admiration for the recluse, going so far one day as to espy him in a park. So excited are they to have the chance for a photo with him (Phillip pretends to converse with him, while sitting beside him on a bench), that Erik forgets to take off the lens cap, resulting in a much treasured, exquisitely metaphorical photo of nothing but blackness.
When Phillip returns home from the institution where he was sent following his breakdown, he heads almost immediately to the wall on which he’s tacked his favorite photos. His mother and Erik have removed all evidence of Kari, imagining that if he sees her image he’ll be thrown into an instant maelstrom, but the black photo remains, an apt tribute to his lost youth and aspirations. Flashbacks reveal that Phillip was discovered by Erik in the midst of his breakdown, his face bloodied by self-inflicted wounds. Erik’s efforts to keep his friend calm and distracted once he returns home are alternately tense and comic. Walking outside, Erik suggests they head home; “Am I tired already?” asks Phillip.
Baffled by the sickness and afraid of uncertain futures (Erik is still looking for his first book contract; Phillip is feeling pressure to produce another manuscript), both friends seek respite in their past. Erik brings Phillip along on outings with their old friends, who look increasingly immature and tedious (or, carefree and energetic, depending on your perspective). Phillip seeks out Kari, going so far as trying to reenact their early romance during a trip to Paris. The more he tries to recapture their history, however, the more uncomfortable she becomes.
At first Phillip hopes to locate himself in her memories: “What did we talk about?” he asks. “What was I like?” And then he decides to rebuild his own recollections. When he has her posing for a photo he remembers too exactly, her skirt arranged just so above her knees, Kari finds herself unable to be the girl she used to be, to trust in Phillip’s stability or self-awareness. Rather, she sees him differently and, no matter the narration that would seem to explain him, he’s creepy and ungenerous, despite or because of his illness.
As the film points out the pitfalls of boy bonding, boy self-absorption, and boy competition, it doesn’t exactly offer alternative perspectives. Instead, Erik and Phillip are rather left to their own devices, flailing as they try to right themselves, to find their places within a moral and class economy that rewards bad behaviors. As much as they believe they admire the great artist Sten Egil Dahl, they must also come to terms at last with his ordinariness, his fear of failure and lack of inspiration: he’s more like them than not. His major difference is more banal than they’d prefer: he gets paid for his work.