Hip Scandinavian Gloom

Joachim Trier’s Reprise is melancholy but exuberant.

Reprise (Miramax Films), the feature debut of young Norwegian director Joachim Trier, is as crisp and cool as a swig of Champagne. It’s a story about young artists—and tormented ones to boot—that neither sentimentalizes its subjects nor treats them with arch contempt. The voice-over narrator of Reprise, an unidentified man who seems more privy to the protagonists’ memories, thoughts, and fantasies than they are themselves, has the same relation to the events he chronicles as Flaubert: Underlying his dry, omniscient irony is a genuine compassion for these searching young men, who come off as pathetic and comic at the same time.

Lest the Flaubert name-drop seem like a reach, please note that it would be appreciated by Erik (Espen Klouman-Høiner) and Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie), aspiring novelists from privileged backgrounds who are still building their identities in the way people in their early 20s do—by stealing them piecemeal from the literature and music they love. This being a European coming-of-age movie, those spare parts tend toward the highbrow, with Camus’ La Peste replacing references to old TV sitcoms (though a song from’90s girl band Le Tigre does play a pivotal role in one scene). But Reprise is about a time of life, and a social dynamic, that should be familiar to American audiences raised on a diet of comedies about smart, funny, too-hip-for-their-own-good guys roaming in packs on the fringes of the grown-up world.

We join Erik and Phillip briskly in medias res, as they stand at a mailbox preparing to ceremonially post the manuscripts of their first novels. As they drop the envelopes into the slot, we’re launched into a hilariously grandiose fantasy montage (as imagined by one of the boys, both of them, or perhaps the narrator himself?) about how the intellectual ferment sparked by these two wildly successful novels will rock the world, eventually inspiring a revolution in Sierra Leone. Back in the real world, Erik’s novel is rejected, Phillip’s is published to minor acclaim, and we jump forward six months to find Erik and his friends picking up the fragile Phillip from a mental hospital after a suicide attempt.

Phillip’s breakdown was caused, at least in part, by his obsession with Kari (Viktoria Winge), a French New Wave-style gamine gorgeous enough to be worth losing your mind over. The lovers’ amour fou takes them to Paris—a perfect trip that Phillip will try, in a painful sequence late in the film, to re-create detail by detail. Meanwhile, Erik mopes around Oslo, taking his girlfriend, Lillian (Silje Hagen), for granted while he slogs away at his novel. He eventually publishes it, only to be ground down by disillusioning reviews and a humiliating appearance on a vapid TV talk show. Over the course of the film, Phillip, Erik, and their crew of (somewhat indistinguishable) buddies find themselves embodying every cliché they’ve mocked: the pussy-whipped boyfriend, the blocked writer, the aging punk. But somehow, that doesn’t make us dismiss the boys as a bunch of losers. Instead, the movie wryly suggests that growing up sometimes means deciding which clichés you’re willing to embrace.

Even though both leads spend a fair amount of screen time mired in Scandinavian gloom, the movie never stays still; it’s a formal wonder, zipping to and fro in time and space, revisiting the boys’ childhoods and imagining multiple possible futures for them. The pacing is occasionally a little jerky, with a disproportionate amount of time spent on aimless bull sessions. But the story keeps reeling you back in with mischievous tricks—like a game in which Phillip bicycles with his eyes closed while counting backward from 10, toying with the audience’s fear (and his own) that he might end it all at any moment. When the end (the movie’s, not Phillip’s) does come, it’s a nicely pitched balance between melancholy and exuberance, hope and despair.

Joachim Trier’s press bio is careful to note that Danish director Lars von Trier is only “a distant relative,” as if to ward off any presumptions of nepotism or undue influence. But Trier the younger needn’t have worried; his quicksilver way with a movie camera is a far cry from von Trier’s operatic, often bludgeoning style. I’ll be counting down from 10 to see what he does next.