Every good story about a totalitarian society should contain one person who says no, who refuses to accept the life dictated to them. Their defiance creates a crack in the facade of perfection, and the carefully constructed community built on everyone doing exactly what they're told could come tumbling down as a result.
The Bothersome Man is a clever, Kafkaesque tale cloaked in Scandinavian modernism. Here, material comfort is the anodyne, and universal contentment is the goal.
When Andreas Ramsfjell (Trond Fausa Aurvåg) finds himself dropped off in a lovely, well-ordered city, handed the keys to his apartment and a dossier detailing his new job, he's befuddled but accepting. He gets along by going along with his cheerful and accommodating co-workers, including his boss Håvard (Johannes Joner), who's more concerned with his happiness than productivity.
Something is off, Andreas can feel it, but he seems to be the only one. When watching an actress with the volcanic emotions of Anna Magnani grandly weeping in a black-and-white movie, he's the only one crying along, surrounded by a theater full of dry-eyed automatons. Everyone around him seems satisfied to continually decorate their stylish homes, like his girlfriend Anne-Britt (Petronella Barker), and keep their surfaces shiny and immaculate.
It isn't until he hears Hugo (Per Schaanning), who uses the anonymity of a men's room stall to unleash a tirade about how nothing has a taste anymore, that Andreas can begin to pinpoint his gnawing dissatisfaction. It's as if his memory of a past life wasn't sufficiently washed away, and he becomes grimly determined to break out of the suffocating cocoon, even if it means only a short time flying free.
Director Jens Lien creates gorgeous wide-screen images that are as crisp and clean as the unnamed city (filmed in Oslo, Norway). But there's a mischievous anarchy lurking beneath the placid exterior, and at one point, Lien turns Andreas's plight into a gruesome, existential horror film.
In The Bothersome Man, expect the unexpected. Just when you think you know where screenwriter Per Schreiner is heading, the story swerves into uncharted territory that's as oddly beautiful as the barren landscape (the Sprengisandur National Desert Reserve in Iceland) where Andreas first gains consciousness.
While poking fun at Western consumer culture and the carefully choreographed expectations of European socialism, the filmmakers have created a timid hero whose quiet, deliberate resistance makes him dangerous enough to topple utopia.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].