The Children of Marx and Maxim
The primary story being told in American comedies right now is of stunted boys in their early 20s coming-of-age. They lack something. In movies like Knocked Up the main character accepts his manhood by settling down with a girlfriend or wife and getting a sensible job. There may be some value in this moral lesson, I am not here to knock Judd Apatow and I don’t dislike his films, but too often the vagaries of growing up are shoehorned into tidy formulas, a point that was driven home while watching Reprise, the infectious debut feature by Norwegian director Joachim Trier. It mines a richer tradition that can be as funny as it is psychological and intellectually stirring.
Reprise’s closest film antecedents might be Paul and Robert in Godard’s Masculine Feminine: intellectually ambitious, self-centered, vulnerable and inept with women. However this self-reflexive and interior exuberance most often lends itself to books, the realm of Augie March and Hans Castorp, and, fittingly, Reprise takes place among Norway’s young literary set.
We first see the best friend protagonists, Erik (Espen Klouman-Høiner) and Phillip (Anders Danielson Lie), as they are marching along the streets of Oslo to mail their first manuscripts to a publishing house. They stop and start, joking and serious in their nervousness. Like many young men they are ambitious in a vague, untested way. They worry, “Do I really want to expose the world to this?”
As their parcels are dropped in the mailbox, the film cuts to a furious montage depicting the imagined paths their lives will subsequently take: dual careers as novelists, expatriates in Paris, fits of melancholy and inspiration, impressive girlfriends, and Continental acclaim. The action is heightened by New Wave-style freeze frames and quick zooms. The optimism and naïveté of this simple moment will be offset by their fumbling in the subsequent years.
Phillip’s book is published while Erik’s is not. While Erik suffers professional disappointment, Phillip has a nervous breakdown and attempts suicide, partly brought on by an obsessive relationship with his girlfriend Kari (Viktoria Winge). The majority of the film follows their attempts to develop and recover from these early setbacks as their lives take a more amorphous and frustrating shape than their cleanly edited fantasies.
This central portion of the film has a loose, lived in feel. Erik and Phillip hang out with a core group of friends, act like jerks, and make chauvinistic comments about girls. They go to punk shows and parties. They lounge in sleek apartments and hold books like precious objects. Alone, they mope. They are ironic yet serious about the literary ideal they want to live out. Erik cruelly refuses to make his girlfriend Lillian (Silje Hagen) a part of his group. Says Phillip, “We can’t have girlfriends, we’re supposed to write and read.”
There is a lot of empathy created from the detailed creation of this world, specific to Oslo (pop cultural references to what I assume are the Yannis and Fugazis of Norway flew by me) but still familiar to the comfortable artistic bourgeois environment of most Western cities (Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon” is the soundtrack to a party scene).
Trier and co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt sketch these characters with critical love, never hesitating to point out their caddishness, upper middle class laxity, or that they suffer from a privileged form of melancholy (excepting Phillip’s very real mental illness). The contrast between the lingering pubescence of their exterior personas, joking and fighting, is balanced nicely with the serious young men they are trying to become.
However, the director is sometimes too comfortable in this all male world at the expense of offering an insightful portrayal of the young women who are also coming of age. Though Erik and Phillip’s insensitive treatment of women is addressed, Lillian and Kari’s motives and thoughts aren’t fleshed out outside them suffering from or getting fed up with their boyfriends’ self-serving behavior.
Erik eventually does get a book published, titled “Prosopopoeia”, referring to a rhetorical device where a writer communicates to the audience by speaking as another person, as Erik and Phillip are trying to create their own realities and attempting to become somebody they want to be by adopting personas. When meeting Sten Egil Dahl (Sigmund Sæverud), a reclusive writer they idolize (the reclusive writer being another romantic stereotype), Erik is dismayed that he is standing next to the pompous writer Mathis (Thorbjørn Harr) at the time, and worries that the two of them will forever be associated in the author’s mind.
Meanwhile Phillip tries to resume his relationship with Kari by obsessively recreating an idealization of what they had before his breakdown. He takes her to Paris and forces her to pose for the photographs he took on an earlier trip that were thrown out by his mother. He repeatedly closes his eyes and counts down from ten. When he gets to zero, he says she will be in love with him.
A narrator adds another layer of literary reference while further commenting on the creator’s role in manipulating thought and image. On a television talk show Erik says that his book is about a search for an “absolute language” and there is a struggle, through the direct fiction of the characters and the metafiction of the narration and filmmaking techniques, to address the struggle for self-definition and communication that is exceptionally acute during the transition to adulthood.
To do this Trier layers various bits of sound and image on top of each other in key interior scenes, particularly when Phillip is struggling to sort out his relationship with Kari, approximating an interior struggle to parse between the past and present, the actual and desired.
Eventually we get to the reprise of the title, a return to the flight of fancy at the opening where Erik once again tries to re-imagine his life, and that of his vanishing friend Phillip, along an ideal continuum. This sequence is imbued with a trenchant longing and sadness. Reprise wonders, for these lesser Hamlets, at what point the transition from idealism to realism will be complete.