TROUBLED WATER (Erik Poppe, 2008)

Norwegian director Erik Poppe’s De Usynlige—literally, The Invisibles—completes his Oslo trilogy, neither of whose earlier entries, Schpaaa (1998) and Hawaii, Oslo (2004), I have seen. Nor will I ever, given the self-congratulatory cleverness, exploitation of suffering, pseudo-spirituality and slimy decadence of De Usynlige. Hollowly written by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg, this piece of “sensitive” trash won the best film prize at Ghent.
     In his twenties, Jan Tomas has spent eight years in prison for abducting a four-year-old boy whose conjoined disappearance has encouraged rumors that Jan also drowned him—a charge that the State could not prove and that Jan has always denied. On the cusp of release, Jan is beaten up by fellow inmates recording their own verdict.
     After his soulful, expert playing of its residential organ gets him a job at a church (after his un-Christian dismissal following his turning up for the job interview), Jan begins having a close relationship with Anna, a priest at the church, whose little son, Jens, recalls the missing child. Meanwhile, schoolteacher Agnes, mother of the missing child, wages a campaign of harassment against Jan (who loves Jens as his own by this time), to find out what happened to her son, to torture Jan as punishment, and perhaps—if her grief has left her human at all, which is debatable—to punish herself, for it is she who left her son outside, unattended, as she skidaddled into a shop to purchase a hot chocolate. Agnes’s increasingly pathological behavior includes assaulting a priest and, ostensibly to protect him from Jan, kidnapping Jens. As a result of Agnes’s accusations and behavior, Anna turns on Jan, by this time her lover.
     The serpentine script provides teasing bits of the past and even more calculatedly teasing bits of the present, incomprehensible in their initial appearance, but given their place in a more or less coherent narrative as the through-line of this narrative twists in order to return, in turn, to each of these bits. This cutesy arrangement reduces Béla Tarr’s profound method of inquiry into a series of selfconscious stylistic hiccups, an instance of form outlasting content.
     Split down the middle, the film jumps from protagonist Jan to protagonist Agnes. Jan’s favorite music to play at the organ, apparently, is Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which gives the film its bogus U.S. title and helps certain reviewers to rave about how the film pursues the theme of music’s healing power—genuinely a theme pursued by, say, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), but not by Poppe’s unconscionable drek. The most unwholesome aspect of this protracted film is Agnes’s enormous pain and suffering, made all the worse by Trine Dyrholm’s rabid performance. Indeed, although Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen is solidly good as Jan, all the other acting is at the level of whorish television soap opera.
     The film is from Norway, Denmark and Germany.

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