"The Almost Man"

in 47th Karlovy Vary Film Festival

by Carmen Gray

Norway’s The Almost Man (Mer eller mindre mann), which won the Grand Prix Crystal Globe at the 47th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, shows that the current spate of man-child comedies about guys reluctant to grow up isn’t just an American phenomenon. Joining US indie fare such as the Duplass brothers’ Jeff, Who Lives at Home and Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse, director Martin Lund’s feature debut, a comedy-drama with unsettlingly dark, menacing undertones, suggests the demands of masculinity are also taking a toll in the affluent consumerist nations of Europe, with the concept of adult responsibility becoming ever-more synonymous with pressure to gain social status.

The “almost man” of the title is thirty-something, regular-looking Henrik (Henrik Rafaelsen, who won Best Actor award for his portrayal). On the surface, there’s not much setting him apart from the middle-class stereotype of moderate, contented success: a nice new apartment, new solid office job and first baby on the way with his caring, attentive girlfriend Tone. But early on, we receive indications that something isn’t quite right with him. On a supermarket trip the couple make, he loudly makes references to being an abusive husband — an adolescent joke to shock the other shoppers, which makes his partner Tone laugh, but which hints that irony is his only means of relating to the world around him; and that there is a very real aggression and discontent repressed under his docile facade. Under the pressure of his new life transitions and commitments, his insecurity quickly spirals uncontrollably toward a full-blown mental breakdown.

At a party that his partner Tone hosts for publishing-world colleagues, we see how ill at ease Henrik is among them, preoccupying himself with the music playlist so he doesn’t have to engage in conversation, then spilling wine on himself and making inappropriate comments. Drunk and increasingly humiliated by his own perceived inability to measure up to the role of socially desirable partner, he climbs into the backseat of a guest’s car and pisses on a Peter Pan children’s book. As obvious as the gesture is symbolically, it’s also alarming, hinting at how serious his psychological problems are, and making us wonder how far his socially transgressive behaviour may go.

Henrik’s hulking size emphasises the innapropriateness of his childlike behaviour. Leaving the party, he reels off to an environment he feels comfortable in — a drinking bout with his old high-school friends, who share a tendency to indulge in crude, adolescent humour. When by chance a neighbour who complains about the noise happens to be one of his new work colleagues, Henrik hits him in the face — a violent flare-up revealing the real menace posed by an adult with no social control. This threat is all the more palpable given Tone’s pregnancy, and the fact that her former total indulgence of his immature behaviour has begun to reveal limits. She may not need a traditional provider in this modern era, but with a needy baby on the way, her capacity to mother Henrik is clearly over, and her need of a relationship based on equality of support starts to assert itself.

Lund’s approach is interesting in that unlike a filmmaker like Solondz, who mercilessly subject his characters to the worst possible reactions to their social ineptness, he positions Henrik within a surprisingly forgiving and tolerant universe. Not only does Tone stretch beyond the bounds of normal acceptance in relation to her partner’s behaviour, the workmate Henrik assaults is generously willing to let the matter be more or less forgotten. But here’s the rub. While Henrik is not overtly punished, he is increasingly left alone. He can only suspect that his inability to feel part of the world he drifts through stems not from any of his actions but from the very fibre of his being — a profound alienation symptomatic of a post-industrial society in which social structures are increasingly intangible and complex. At lunch with colleagues at a seminar, they postulate alternate names that would suit him better — attributing no weight or credence to the prime indicator of his identity, and leaving him feeling an interchangeable shell. Causing few ripples, his ultimate fear is that as a man he may be not just objectionable, but entirely obsolete.

When Henrik tries to cut himself off from his old school friends and forge new relations at work, it’s not easy, as he lacks the skills to be effortlessly popular and accepted among the men whose lifestyle he now aspires to. His mental distress is largely suffered alone — not feeling able to articulate it, others can only read unease in the external signs and incidents. While he finally admits to Tone that his old way of being isn’t working for him, change seems far from guaranteed; the ending tentatively hopeful, but uncertain. If the “almost man” is indeed a phenomenon of masculinity at silent crisis-point in affluent western societies, Lund’s film offers no clear solution, but is an impetus, at least, for conversation.

Carmen Gray