Toronto's Programmer Steve Gravestock Shares His Views On His Nordic Picks

By Nordisk Film & TV Fond




In two weeks 14 Nordic titles will be screening at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) including the latest additions from Sweden - Call Girl by Michael Marcimain and Eat Sleep Die by Gabriela Pichler, both selected for the Discovery section. In this exclusive article, long-time Nordic programmer for TIFF Steve Gravestock gives his personal views on the latest artistic output from the Nordic region.

"This year's Nordic films at TIFF  are rather difficult to categorize neatly. The range really is quite spectacular, from larger and smaller scale historical pieces (Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning's Kon-Tiki; Nikolai Arcel's A Royal Affair; Mikael Marcimain's Call Girl; and Baltasar Kormákur's The Deep) to pieces about contemporary life (Eva Sørhaug's 90 Minutes; Gabriela Pichler's Eat, Sleep, Die; Sara Johnsen's All That Matters is Past; Jesper Ganslandt's Blondie; Tobias Lindholm's A Hijacking; Mika Kaurismaki's Road North; Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt to romantic comedies like Susanne Bier's Love is All You Need and a fractured horror/fable like Thale.

But even these broad delineations break down upon further reflection. The historical films, for instance, are quite different - and in numerous cases they share deeper more profound connections with the contemporary work. Sandberg and Rønning's stirring Kon-Tiki, which deals with Thor Heyerdahl's attempt to cross the Pacific in a balsa wood raft, kind of reminds me of David Lean's epic movies. It's an adventure film first and foremost, and has more than its shares of thrilling sequences (my favorite is when a whale nearly upends their raft), but it also hearkens back to when scientists did work in the field, sometimes risking their lives, as opposed to a corporately funded laboratory. The film's approach to its hero is also intriguing and, in some ways, slyly funny.  The filmmakers are very aware of how profound Heyerdahl's folly is. He can't even swim and his first recruit is a refrigerator salesman.

Baltasar Kormákur's The Deep also deals with men at sea, but here the scale is different, focusing on a totally remarkable everyman. Also based on a true story, The Deep follows an Icelandic fisherman whose boat goes down in the frigid North Atlantic and he has to swim for hours to get to shore, in temperatures most people wouldn't last ten minutes in. The film gradually assumes almost mythic status while saying a great deal about endurance and the nature of heroism.

Some of the historical films, like A Royal Affair, use the past as a distant mirror. The film looks at a physician (played by the great Mads Mikkelsen) who revolutionized Danish society by convincing the King to institute a sweeping range of reforms (and by sleeping with the queen). It's as much a critique of the conservative and isolationist elements in Danish society as it is about history. Similar issues are raised in Thomas Vinterberg's extraordinary Cannes hit The Hunt with Mikkelsen as a daycare worker/teacher who's accused of lewd conduct with one of his charges. His friends, whom he's known for decades, turn on him immediately.

Though it's set in the present, Jesper Ganslandt's Blondie also deals with the past through a well-off family (a mother and three daughters) who reluctantly reunite for the mother's 80th birthday. They're there to re-connect but secretly they all want some sort of payback for past slights. It uses that old Bergman trope of an isolated house basically inhabited exclusively by women, but it's an almost aggressive deconstruction of it.

Like Blondie, Johnsen's exquisite, tragic All That Matters is Past is partly about the past returning to haunt the present. It tells the story of star-crossed lovers  (Kristoffer Joner and Marie Bonnevie) who leave society for the rural area they grew up in, only to be threatened by a sinister figure from their past. The scientist hero of Thale tries to right past wrongs while the heroine (played by the great Trine Dyrholm) of Susanne Bier's lovely and affecting Love is All You Need struggles to break with her dour past and embrace a new more promising future. Dyrholm delivers up a touching performance and she's abetted by a great cast including Pierce Brosnan.

Also based on true events, Marcimain's Call Girl deals with a 1970s prostitution scandal which was never fully exposed or investigated but came close to bringing down a party that had been in power for decades. It's related to the policier genre and the kind of political thrillers Costas-Gavras was famous for and sort of like an anti- Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - there are no Nazis, serial killers or punk computer geniuses with elaborate haircuts. It's very much about the arrogance power breeds and about that specific period in Swedish society. It also features a major performance by Pernille August  as the Swedish Heidi Fleiss.

The other contemporary pieces are all over the place stylistically but frequently linked by an immediacy and a determination to deal with the current state of things. Pichler's Eat Sleep Die, one of the finest debuts from Sweden in recent memory, deals with an enclave of Balkan workers whose community is falling apart due to an economic downturn and the harsh realities of life in modern day Europe, where recent émigrés are replaced by newer arrivals who will work for less money. Eva Sørhaug's 90 Minutes -which some have likened to Michael Haneke's work- is a startling and profoundly disturbing portrait of Norwegian society through three unconnected stories about the last 90 minutes of a person's life, and it may be the first film of the post- Anders Brevik era.

Lindholm's impressive A Hijacking looks at modern pirates in a gritty, authentic way (down to using real locations and actors who have actually been involved in similar situations in real life) which invests the film with an extraordinary amount of tension.

With Road North, Finnish master Mika Kaurismäki continues his examination of male relationships, focusing on a wastrel father and his uptight son, and asking whether our determination to carve a different path than our parents isn't just as likely to lead us to similar fates. This isn't necessarily a contemporary story, but for anyone who has a complicated relationship with a parent (which is probably everyone to some degree), it definitely feels pretty immediate."