Tuesday, November 15, 2016

With A Little Help from My Friends

Rolf Lassgård in A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove (2015, directed by Hannes Holm) is Sweden's submission for this year's Oscars. It's not a perfect film by any measure. It relies a bit too heavily on flashbacks and it is sometimes too cute for its own good. Indeed, movies about curmudgeons who are made less curmudgeonly by the people around them are a dime a dozen. And yet, this worked on me. By the end of the film, I was profoundly moved by it. I've mentioned before that the experience of movie going is often more influenced by personal circumstance than by the relative quality of a film. This is the first film I've seen in the theater since before the election, and its generosity and kindness is something I didn't know I needed in the grim future I find myself facing. It is an unexpected comfort in dark times.

Bahar Pars and Rolf Lassgård in A Man Called Ove

The story follows the life of its titular character as he grieves for his wife, Sonja, who died of cancer six months before. Ove is a home-owner's association martinet, whose life has come down to policing the codicils of his neighborhood. He makes his rounds every morning to make sure his neighbors are toeing the line. Ove is also trying to kill himself. Every time he's ready to do the deed, however, some affront to his sense of order in the world asserts itself in his vision. "Idiots," he grumbles ever time his suicide is thwarted. When he gets close to his goal, his mind wanders back to the life he had with Sonja and before to his childhood. We get a portrait of a socially awkward man whose life is entirely devoted to the luminous presence of his wife, and whose life is marked by tragedy and pain. The main impediment to his suicide is his new neighbor, Parveneh, and her family. She's an Iranian immigrant with two daughters already and very pregnant with a third, married to an amiable but gormless Swede. She doesn't know how to drive, but she knows how to cook. Ove scoffs at the Tupperware container of saffron rice she gives him as a thank-you for helping them park their trailer (even though they're not supposed to). This is the first crack in his armor. Ove soon finds himself teaching Parveneh to drive, babysitting her kids, and fixing their dishwasher. Moreover, Ove finds himself helping other people: one of his wife's old students needs his girlfriend's bike fix, which Ove does. That same student has a gay friend who has been thrown from his house after coming out to his parents. Ove takes. him in. Ove's estranged business partner has suffered a stroke and is in danger of being institutionalized against the will of his wife. Ove frantically tries to prevent this. Ove saves a man from being killed after collapsing on a train platform. The reporter who sees this wants to write a story about Ove. Ove wants none of it. He just wants to join his wife. Parveneh, for her part, is tough-minded with Ove. "You're really shit at dying," she tells him. She doesn't put up with his crap. At her urging, Ove learns to live again in spite of himself.

Ida Engvoll and Filip Berg in A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove starts off as a comedy of manners. Ove's behavior is uptight and borderline nasty, but it's often funny. There's genuine pain conveyed in Rolf Lassgård's performance even when Ove is being genuinely unlikable. Which is fairly often. The addition of a dollop of gallows humor doesn't mitigate that pain, and the film dutifully provides its source as it unfolds. Ove's life in flashback finds the film drifting away from nastiness into a deeply-felt humanism. These parts of the film are a celebration of romance and tragedy. They're still funny, sometimes, filmed as they are with a sardonic sense of absurdity. The death of Ove's father, for instance, is horrifying, but it's also absurd. Sonja, presented in these scenes as the very model of the manic pixie dreamgirl, seems a little bit unreal, too, but not in an artificial way. Rather, she's an ideal in Ove's head. The contrast with Parveneh is telling: Sonja is never seen to be cross or frustrated with her husband's social awkwardness and obstinate personal habits, but Parveneh will have none of it. She chides Ove for making Sonja into a saint and turning his house into a shrine. The film seems aware of the weakness of flashbacks as a narrative device and subverts them even as it maybe overuses them. There's a definite irony in them that isn't present in the contemporary scenes. The filmmakers are savvy with their moods as they manipulate the audience.

Bahar Pars and Rolf Lassgård in A Man Called Ove

Oh, this is manipulative. And infused with a sentimentality only partially defused by the film's ironic detachment. The flashback episode detailing the relationship between Ove and Rune, his business partner, is a good example of what I'm talking about. The two men seem to be mirror images of each other, and natural friends. The wedge that drives them apart is Ove's allegiance to Saab automobiles while Rune is a Volvo man. This is funny and odd, but it also sets up the film's endgame, where Rune can no longer advocate for himself and Ove reluctantly steps in. It's a fine dance between the bittersweet and the maudlin. For the most part, it works. Or, at least, it worked on me. I can't say that the film's message of acceptance and engagement with the world and the value of diverse communities and the thawing of the resistance of white men who the world is passing by doesn't resonate more clearly this week than it did, say, last month, but for me it did. I think this is important today, right now. A Man Called Ove comes by its sentiments honestly, and I was in no mood to let my own cynicism prevent me from surrendering to them. I let them work me over good. It was cathartic.

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