fredag 6. november 2009

Head Above Water/Hodet over vannet

Norway, 1993

Directed by Nils Gaup

Lene Elise Bergum, Svein Roger Karlsen, Morten Abel, Reidar Sørensen

I have to admit that I don't really watch a lot of Norwegian thrillers. Not because I don't like thrillers from my own homeland but simply because there are very, very few of them. As such, Head Above Water stands out since it's one of the very few Norwegian thrillers. It's also easily one of the best Norwegian films from the 1990s.

The story takes place on an idyllic and isolated little island in the south of Norway, where newly-wed couple Einar (Svein Roger Karlsen) and Lene (Lene Elise Bergum) are vacationing at their seaside summer house. Einar is a magistrate and he is noticeably older than his young, pretty wife, who has been struggling a bit with her nerves – popping a few more tranquilizers than she ought to. The only other person on the island is Lene's childhood friend, Bjørn (Morten Abel), who lives in another cabin nearby.

Einar and Lene at their picturesque summer home

Einar and Bjørn decide to take the boat out for a little fishing trip; leaving Lene all by herself on the island. It isn’t long, however, before Lene's old boyfriend, Gaute (Reidar Sørensen), shows up for a surprise visit. Gaute claims he sent a postcard to announce his arrival but Lene insists she never received it. She nevertheless invites him in as they seem to still be quite chummy. Gaute reveals that his wife has left him and that he's been drinking very heavily lately. Keeping the trend up, he helps himself to a bottle of vodka.

Gaute gets started on the booze...

...while Lene watches

Before the night is over, Gaute ends up asleep - naked - in Einar and Lene’s bed. Lene herself spends the night on the couch. The next morning, she is woken up by the sound of the boat’s whistle as Einar and Bjørn return from their fishing trip. Fearing what the jealous Einar will do if he finds Gaute naked in their bed, Lene rushes into the bedroom to wake up Gaute but to her horror she discovers that he is dead – having apparently died of a heart attack from his excessive drinking.

A dead, naked ex-boyfriend in your marriage bed can give you a headache

The nervous Lene panics completely at the thought of what Einar is going to think, and - acting purely on impulse - she drags her ex-boyfriend’s naked corpse out of the bedroom and hides him in the potato cellar...

Hiding the corpse

To reveal any more of the plot would be a crime as it would deprive first-time viewers of many great and unpredictable surprises in the plot. Rest assured that there are plenty of neat twists and turns in store – with the viewers never being quite sure about what has happened or who to trust.

Director Nils Gaup is without doubt one of Norway’s most talented filmmakers. After making his debut with the gripping adventure film Pathfinder (1987), which received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film, and following up with the partially Disney-financed youth adventure Håkon Håkonsen (1990), Gaup was offered work in Hollywood. He was asked to direct the Sally Field flick Not Without My Daughter (1991) but turned it down and instead made his third film in Norway. The film he made was of course Head Above Water, which became a great success and won the prestigious Norwegian movie award, the Amanda, for best film of the year. The film also achieved some success abroad, which inevitably led to a Hollywood remake starring Harvey Keitel and Cameron Diaz in 1996.

It's no wonder Hollywood tried to imitate this film because it's a very effective thriller and Gaup demonstrates a great talent for building tension and suspense. The setting on a small, secluded island is clever and allows the narrative to focus very closely on its small cast and let the growing tension between them flourish. The fact that there are only three characters really works to the film's advantage; tightening the focus and building up a claustrophobic atmosphere as the unexpected twists in the plot force the characters to re-evaluate their opinions of each other (and the audience to re-evaluate our opinions of the characters). The effective tension is held up all the way till the film's dark but amusingly ironic conclusion.

There's plenty of (sometimes sexual) tension between Lene and the various male characters

But it's not just the ending that is ironic. Head Above Water actually contains its fair share of comedic touches - with Gaup serving us some really pitch black comedy of errors to underline the macabre irony in several of the film’s twists. It elicits a few good chuckles but Gaup stays true to the thriller format, and the emphasis is more on thrills than on laughs.

Gaup delivers the necessary thrills

The film also impresses on a visual level, with very nice-looking cinematography and a rousing musical score to heighten the suspense. The idyllic island makes a picturesque backdrop to the macabre plot, and as the story starts to unfold, the beautiful island surroundings quickly start to feel claustrophobic.

The acting by the small cast is uniformly excellent, with top honors going to the outstanding Svein Roger Karlsen, who is required to go through several shifts in his portrayal of the husband. He is ably supported by debutant Lene Elise Bergum, who is terrific as the nervous, young wife. Although Bergum's pill-popping character initially reminds one a bit of the kind of giallo heroines played by Carroll Baker in the 1960s, she quickly reveals herself as highly resourceful and demonstrates a tremendous survival instinct, which makes her extremely compelling to watch. Bergum also possesses a very natural charm and has great chemistry with all of her male co-stars. She's also shown to have no qualms about taking her clothes off at regular intervals. Unfortunately, Bergum never really fulfilled the promise she showed here. Other than a long-running role on Scandinavia's longest-running daytime soap, Hotel Cæsar, she only really had a couple of dumb blonde roles in short-lived sitcoms, and eventually retired from acting altogether. A real shame!

Our delightful heroine

And in the role of the couple’s friend is Morten Abel, who at the time was a singer in the popular Norwegian band The September When, and later went on to a successful career as a solo artist. While not as impressive as the two leads, Abel does a pretty decent job - especially since he isn’t really an actor.

If you're looking for quality European thrillers you might have missed out on then look no further because Head Above Water is just what you're after. The Norwegian DVD released by SF Norge contains English subtitles, so I highly recommend picking it up so you can enjoy this little gem. Just make sure you sit through the entire closing credits or else you'll miss the film's final ironic twist.

© 2009 Johan Melle

The cast:

Lene Elise Bergum as Lene

Svein Roger Karlsen as Einar

Morten Abel as Bjørn

Reidar Sørensen as Gaute

5 kommentarer:

Pidde Andersson sa...

Cannes, a couple of years ago. One of the last days of the festival. I went to the Scandinavian terrace for a beer, but nobody was there. No bartender, no guests. There were cold beers in the bar, but I was all alone - till a bearded, middleaged Norwegian I'd never seen before showed up. We decided to grab a couple of beers (it's free anyway), which we did, and the Norwegian reach out his hand and said "My name is Eirik Ildahl" (writer of Head Above Water). I shook his hand and said "Nice to meet you, Idi Kharelli!" - that was the anagram he used when he wrote scripts for the Phantom comic book back in the 1980s!
His facial expression was priceless.

Johan Melle sa...

That's a nice little story. Thanks for sharing! I have to admit that I had no idea he used to write scripts for the Phantom comics. I always thought they were just exported from the US and then translated. Fascinating stuff. Your comment has made me want to check out more of Ildahl's stuff but, sadly, he doesn't seem to have penned a lot of films...

Pidde Andersson sa...

Except for the daily strip, which still is produced in the U.S. by King Features, the material for the Scandinavian (and Australian) Phantom comic books is produced by Team Fantomen, based in Stockholm, with writers and artists all over the (western) world. It's been like this for about 40 years now.
The Americans put out their own Phantom books every now and then, DC gave it a try in the 80s, then Marvel, right now Moonstone publishes a Phantom comic - but they're all pretty lousy and have few readers, since The Phantom is more or less forgotten in the States.
I think there was a Norwegian guy drawing the Phantom about 30 years ago, but I can't recall his name... Maybe Knud och Knut something...

Pidde Andersson sa...

Okay, I had a look in an index. I was thinking of Knut Westad - I liked his art when he first appeared. But I also realized lots of Norwegians have worked on the comic the last 30 years...

Johan Melle sa...

Again, many thanks for the interesting information! I remember that I used to read the Phantom strips in newspapers as a kid and bought a couple of magazines now and then. Although I eventually "outgrew" it, I remember enjoying it a lot. Very cool to know that several Norwegians were involved in the making of it! :)