Coming from the country just named the “best” in which to live by the United Nations, the Norwegian comedy Elling offers a glimpse of the good life — or the socialized good life, at any rate. The film may leave a few American viewers sighing with envy at the benefits of the system on display: get yourself released from a state psychiatric institute and the government will provide you with a subsidized apartment in downtown Oslo, as well as money for food and recreation. While it may be a plug for the socialized system, Elling is primarily the gently comedic story of two emotionally disturbed men learning to get along with one another and to live independently.
The film’s humor comes from the clashing idiosyncrasies of its two leads, the conservative, nervous, self-described “mama’s boy,” Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen), and the plainspoken, hulking, and horny Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin) as they attempt to deal with everyday urban life. For these two, tasks such as grocery shopping, eating in a restaurant, and using a telephone can be terrifying activities. We not only see how the choices and interactions Elling and Kjell Bjarne confront scare them, but also at times we see through their eyes, so that the film effectively flip-flops our sense of what is “normal.” Elling asks his caseworker, Frank Åsli (Jørgen Langhelle), why, if he chooses not to, he should have to speak to people through a piece of plastic — that is, the telephone. The film shows us how certain things that we take for granted every day are, in essence, very strange.
Elling does not enter into any psychological background on the two men. Of Elling, we know only that he lived for many years with only his mother, and was not able to cope when she died — the film opens as he is dragged out of a closet by authorities, wimpering. We see him and Kjell Bjarne briefly in an institute where they are roommates and where Elling fascinates the lustful Kjell Bjarne with his tales of amorous exploits. Again upending our expectations, when he learns that the stories are all fabrications, Kjell Bjarne insists only that Elling continue to tell more of them.
When they are released from the hospital, the two move into an apartment together and are assigned to Frank, who insists that they interact with the outside world. In another moment of the film’s comedy of eccentricities, Elling is soon kvetching that Frank is on an ego trip and is undermining the men’s plans at every turn, such as their plans to go on a trip to a friend’s cabin. After Elling shores up determined arguments, however, Frank just wishes the men bon voyage.
It makes sense, then, that he wants the close bond he forms with Kjell Bjarne to be exclusive, and feels threatened when Kjell Bjarne begins to take an interest in the pregnant single woman who lives upstairs, Reidun Nordsletten (Marit Pia Jacobsen). Tempers flare between him and Kjell Bjarne, but little by little, the introverted Elling ventures forth into the risky world of human contact. At one point, he sets off to a café poetry slam, where he is outraged by the bad poetry of the poseur youth. There, he meets an established poet-intellectual, Per Christensen (Alfons Jørgensen), who shares his opinion and becomes his first friend in the “real world.”
Kjell Bjarne and Elling inevitably recall Neil Simon’s Oscar and Felix for an American audience, and the film is often like a play in structure, unsurprisingly, as it is based upon a play which starred the same two actors and which in turn is based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen. But shades of Oscar and Felix notwithstanding, Elling knows when to stop: scenes and storylines that would be carried ten times farther, such as Elling’s being questioned by a clerk as he places containers of sauerkraut onto grocery store shelves, are cut off at the right moment. Fashioning himself as an “underground” rebel, Elling has begun slipping his poetry into the sauerkraut boxes and has dubbed himself the “sauerkraut poet.”
Elling’s precise, deadpan dialogue is often droll. “Why does everyone know the exact name of this car?” he fumes to himself when he and his friends are stopped for the second time while driving the poet’s chrome-bedecked 1959 Buick. Elling will be too saccharine for some, with its requisite female romantic interest, road trip in an American car, and happy ending. It is true that the film wholly eschews any psychological explanations, to the point that it leaves open the question of whether Elling and Kjell Bjarne are even genuinely mentally disturbed. The film can only be taken on its own terms, which are confined ones. But it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is, permitting no great epiphanies and no big-hug endings.
The film’s political underpinnings are made more direct by its explicit references to Norway’s former three-time female Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, also a doctor and public health administrator. Elling is constantly reading her biography, and places her photo on the kitchen wall where Jesus’ had been. It’s comic, but clear: were it not for the system which Brundtland represents, the two men would not be there, but rather, perhaps, languishing in an institution. Elling suggests that it’s best to allow mildly disturbed people to live on their own with minimal interference, and that if those people are not too insane, they can even have, and bring to others, quite a lot of fun.