A man steps down from a rattling bus at a rundown gas station in the centre of a deserted volcanic wasteland. He is expected. In a nearby city an apartment waits for him, a job, a whole new life. But something is wrong here. The inhabitants of the city seem happy, content with their lot. But the food tastes of nothing, the alcohol is ineffective, the music bland, the décor uniform and drab. Even sex is joyless.
The opening scenes of Jens Lien’s debut feature The Bothersome Man tick all the boxes in the now-familiar category marked ‘surreal/ existentialist’. A lone stranger. A world familiar, but not quite like our own. Plenty of empty silences, meaningful glances and quiet desperation. Scattered touches of delicate whimsy, and a handful of random absurdity (in this case, two men playing badminton in an open field). A lot of none-too-subtle social commentary.
The film is obviously intended as a Kafkaesque allegory on middle-class Scandinavian culture, and hammers its point home with numbing regularity. The characters, bemused hero Andreas notwithstanding, are uniformly dull and lifeless. They are obsessed with interior design, any hint of emotion or imagination terrifies them. Even when Andreas thinks he’s found real love, with blonde office junior Ingeborg, it turns out she’s just an empty vessel like all the rest.
The main problem the filmmakers face is that it’s very difficult to make a film about joyless people in a joyless world and still make the film, well, enjoyable. When virtually all your characters are dour and plastic, how is an audience supposed to relate? Even poor Andreas has no context in which to display his personality. He’s presented as the archetypal everyman, trying to make his way in an uncertain and unpredictable world. Trond Fausa Aurvag plays the character just a notch above unconscious, blinking warily at the steadily unfolding drama in which he has become an unwilling central player. The other actors essay their parts perfectly, but it’s hard to tell how talented they are when the characters are all essentially the same: cold, loveless, lifeless.
The final act of the film brings some spark to the proceedings. Following an abortive subway suicide attempt (in this world it’s impossible to die), Andreas overhears the distant and beautiful sound of music. He discovers a hole in the wall of an abandoned cellar, from which strange and emotive sounds and smells regularly emanate. He attempts to break through, but his efforts are impeded by the mysterious city authorities.
The suicide sequence is by far the strongest in the film. There have been shocking images before – a man impaled on railings, his intestines hanging out; Andreas cutting off his own finger, only to find it mysteriously re-grown. But when he jumps under the train, the film takes off in a new and temporarily riveting direction. Andreas is smashed, battered, dragged along and torn to shreds, all the while conscious and aware of what’s happening to him. And it’s all presented in horrifyingly vivid detail, every bone snap and crunch clearly audible. For a moment the film begins to resemble Miike Takashi’s Audition, another sly comment on middle-class mores which descended into surprising and disturbing violence.
But The Bothersome Man entirely lacks the earlier film’s integrity, or its intelligence. It’s hard to tell if Lien or screenwriter Per Schreiner realise quite how narrow and offensive the premise of their film is. This is a world in which the majority of people live drab, empty lives which mean absolutely nothing. They don’t enjoy the benefits they are given, they are small-minded, petty individuals with nothing to recommend them. The women, particularly, are trouble: self-centred, treacherous, beautiful but empty, unable to connect on any kind of human level. Is this how Lien and Schreiner view the world? Do they see themselves as Andreas, ‘real’ souls trapped in this prison of fakery?
There isn’t an ounce of subtlety in The Bothersome Man. It is a film as anhedonic and soulless as its characters, dripping with patronising superiority. What strength the film has lies in its ability to shock, but such moments are fleeting and purely physical. There is nothing here we haven’t seen before, or needed to see again.