Play It Again

Photo: Nils Vik/Courtesy of Miramax Films

Joachim Trier’s heady debut, Reprise, kicks off with two male buddies in front of a mailbox: They stare momentously into each other’s eyes and drop in manuscripts for their respective (first) novels, while a narrator (Eindride Eidsvoll) announces that Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Hoiner) believe their lives are about to change forever. That narrator is a wry fellow, less ironic than gently knowing, and he proceeds to spin a brief fantasy along the lines of what they expect will happen next: publication, commercial failure, cult success, mental crack-ups, tragic Paris love affairs with gorgeous depressives, and, finally, a reunion and joint novel that inspires civil disobedience and revolution. By the time Trier darts back to the present, Reprise is in high gear, like Speed Racer for the bohemian intelligentsia, complete with crash and burn.

It’s also happily, confidently unfettered. Broadly, this is a coming-of-age movie in the Diner mold: Trier tracks Phillip and Erik and a few of their pals as they stagger into a world that can’t be attuned to their (male adolescent) expectations—especially in regard to women. But the movie’s content is inseparable from its voice. Conventional thinking says there’s cinema, there’s literature, and never the twain do meet—which is why our best novelists (among them, speaking of twains, Mark) resist adaptation. Trier and his co-writer, Eskil Vogt, go where the spirit takes them: The film is an exhilarating weave of childhood remembrance, projection, literary digression, and impish commentary. Yet its postmodernism doesn’t distance you. Even at its artiest, Reprise could spring from the pages of either protagonist’s novel. You feel as if you’re pinging around in the characters’ imaginations.

Consider the relationship of the moody (alternately manic and catatonic) Phillip and a student named Kari (Viktoria Winge)—an affair we learn of only after the now-acclaimed novelist has bashed himself against a window and spent six months in a psychiatric hospital. Phillip first sees her in a music club and says to himself that by the time he counts to ten she’ll turn and be his, and she does, and he whisks her off to Paris; and now, post-hospitalization, he’s taking her back to France to re-create the moment, only he can’t seem to get into the present tense. The words don’t match what’s onscreen: The couple is staring into space or walking silently through a park. The effect is jarring, mannered—but when Phillip bursts into Kari’s office, where she’s working as a telemarketer, and blurts that he’s going to be different, that he’s finally “in sync,” the movie’s style and the character’s psyche mesh. Everything that came before makes marvelous sense.

Reprise skips along, but when it stops, it really stops, because these are Norwegians and it’s not in their character just to pirouette on the surface: The icier the water, the deeper the plunge. Gangly and earnest, with a clownishly wide mouth, Erik tries to pull his friend back into the moment, but their talks remain miserably untranscendent. (The best Erik can say about Phillip’s first stab at writing in ages is that a watery metaphor for emotional distance has promise.) Yet you’re never dragged under for long. The posturing literary and media types are a reliable source of amusement, and when the old friends lie on a beach and discuss the inferior taste of women, the talk is outrageous and obscene. Erik has a long-term girlfriend named Lillian, whom he treats so cavalierly that we don’t see her face, even when they’re making love. It’s only when she dumps him for being a walking cliché that the camera fixes on her—a real person, after all. The Salinger-like recluse (Sigmund Saeverud) whom Erik and Phillip revere is a shade too much the martyr of literature (in some scenes, he’s bathed in white light amid shadows), but it’s bracingly funny when he praises Erik’s novel and then criticizes the ending: “Don’t try to be poetic.”

Trier takes the old novelist’s advice, and I hope he continues to. After a screening at the Scandinavia House, he cited all the usual influences—the French New Wave, Resnais—and added, this being New York, that Annie Hall was up there, too. It was a useful reminder that despite Woody Allen’s disparagement of that film (he doesn’t count it among his finest achievements), he has in many ways never equaled it. Annie Hall was the fullest expression of who he was at that time, a psychodrama in the form of a stand-up routine. Reprise is a psychodrama with a young comic novelist’s aplomb. It’s what the movie of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity should have been but wasn’t, because the hero was always blurting out what should have been narration and narrating scenes that should have been dramatized. Trier tackles big themes (determinism versus chance), but they’re not what keep you watching breathlessly—any more than the love story in Annie Hall could be summed up with “We need the eggs.” It’s really a testament to the liberating power of art. You’ll come out humming the syntax.

In Sangre de mi Sangre, Christopher Zalla serves up an old-fashioned, sentimental weeper with a sucker punch of urban-immigrant horror. The movie centers on a father’s reunion with a son he never knew he had and how the two somehow break through each other’s calloused cynicism. The twist is that the teen is an impostor, Juan (Armando Hernández), who met the real son, Pedro (Jorge Adrián Espíndola), in a tractor-trailer filled with undocumented Mexicans and stole his backpack and identity. In New York City, Juan talks his way into the squalid apartment of Pedro’s father, Diego (Jesús Ochoa), who he thinks has money stashed away, while Pedro, who’s illiterate and speaks no English, uses what cash he has to hire a trick-turning hophead, Magda (Paola Mendoza), to locate the restaurant where his dad works.

Zalla, a graduate of Columbia’s film school, is talented and single-minded. He needs to lighten up, literally. He frames his characters to bring out all their sweaty desperation, and his palette is dark with splashes of muddy brown; even the street scenes look as if they were shot in a dungeon. The director really piles on the grotesquerie. One look at Magda and you know she’s going to be violated in some disgusting way, and the climactic encounter between the true and bogus Pedros is surprising only because you don’t think Zalla will stoop to such a crude resolution. But he’s sensitive with his actors. The Mexican Ochoa usually plays corrupt cops (Denzel Washington blew him up real good in Man on Fire) and never gets too moist—which makes his final explosion of emotion more powerful. Hernández uses the same smart strategy. Juan’s feeling for his “father” comes from left field, and not through love but fury: He finds himself raging at Diego on behalf of the dead mother that wasn’t his. The nasty old man and the coldhearted thief are shocked by their connection. If only we hadn’t seen it limping toward us out of the darkness for so long.

Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature is a prestigious award, but not a positive predictor of box-office or Oscar success—in fact, the award often correlates with low financial returns. Last year’s winner, Sangre de Mi Sangre, can’t take much hope from its two immediate forerunners. In 2005, the prize went to Forty Shades of Blue (over Me and You and Everyone We Know and audience fave Hustle & Flow) and in 2006 to Quinceañera (over Little Miss Sunshine and Half Nelson). Quinceañera made a modest $2.5 million, but it was a smash in comparison with its predecessor, which took in a meager $172,569.

Directed by Joachim Trier.
Miramax Films. NR.

Sangre de mi Sangre
Directed by Christopher Zalla.
First Take IFC. NR.


Play It Again