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Friday
Sep302016

A Man Called Ove (2015)

One Way Love

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

--Albert Camus

The world needs more suicide comedies. The impulse to take one’s life is not inherently funny, and it can be shaky grounds for entertainment—especially for audience members who’ve never been around such specifically troubled individuals, or contemplated cutting out early themselves. But I can think of three films that draw laughs from the unspeakable, while also making their world-weary protagonists’ struggles into catalysts for a deeper appreciation of the human condition.

In Better Off Dead, Savage Steve Holland’s farcical love letter to teen break-ups, John Cusack stars as a wannabe ski champion who tries everything from asphyxiation to self-immolation in order to avoid coping with getting dumped by his long-time girlfriend. Though each attempt fails, and his life becomes a larger surrealist carnival by the second (marked by thuggish paperboys, dancing hamburger people, and a space shuttle made from household objects), things turn around when a French foreign-exchange student teaches him to love himself (and her, of course).

In Harold and Maude, Bud Court and Ruth Gordon spark a bizarre May/December romance in which suicide is used as a means of intimidation (Harold, the young misanthropic rich kid, uses outrageous displays of gruesomeness to ward off the girls his mother tries to set him up with), as well as a cosmic plea on Harold’s part to feel some kind of rush (or any feeling at all, really) in the face of the stuffy, dead-eyed snobs around him. In Maude, he finds a similarly unimpressed-with-people spirit who has embraced all the kookiness and diversions life has to offer.

The third film is Hannes Holm’s A Man Called Ove, the most dramatic and sentimental of the bunch, and the least reliant on romance as the key to alleviating suffering. Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t change a thing about Better Off Dead or Harold and Maude, but Holm’s adaptation of Fredrik Backman's novel charges straight at the idea of grief as a defining natural force and, despite some humor throughout, doesn’t cushion the blow with comedy.

Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is an elderly locomotive engineer who lives in a small Swedish community. He’s also a widower, and the film opens with him haggling over the cost of flowers, which he intends to place on the grave of his six-months-departed wife, Sojna (Ida Engvoll). It’s clear early on that Ove has dedicated his life to order. He reprimands a neighbor for not keeping tabs on her dog; kicks each of the many signposts in his neighborhood to make sure they’re sturdy; and does his best to ensure everyone (even the housing authority officials, whom he calls “whiteshirts”) keeps their cars off the wide walking paths.

After getting laid off from his job of 43 years, Ove decides to commit suicide. Fate intervenes when a young couple moves in next door with their noisy kids, and Ove figures that hanging himself is less important than ensuring the idiot husband doesn’t hit something with his (unsanctioned) car. The first act of A Man Called Ove plays like a Swedish, geriatric Better Off Dead, with Ove botching one stunt after another. In an instant, Holm flips the tonal switch on us. As the grouchy, despondent protagonist finally succeeds in dying, we follow his brain into a gloriously heartfelt childhood flashback, which he narrates in a voice that I might best describe as clinically nostalgic.

These flashbacks (or near-death dreams, whatever you’d like to call them) replace cold, confining suburban modernity with the vivid and grandly pastoral sweep of Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump. A Man Called Ove is the tragic version of that film, with young Ove overcoming a nearly Job-like onslaught of adversity and personal loss. Oddly enough, Holm’s loving depiction of Ove’s life (from the young boy helping his dad clean train cars to the awkward young engineering student who falls in love with a girl he meets on that same train) suggests that at least part of his consciousness is grateful for even the meager joys he’d been lucky enough to hold onto--even if those joys are filtered through the prismatic lens of saccharine reminiscence as oxygen gradually leaves his brain.

I should clarify that Ove’s “success” in dying doesn’t necessarily mean that he dies by his own hand (I’ll leave that for you to discover). The more effective he becomes at trying to kill himself, the deeper we get into his past, his head, and his heart. Holm pulls back just shy of filling in a significant twenty- or thirty-year gap that follows the film’s most significant instance of adversity, but by this point, Ove has begun to harvest emotions other than disgust and despair.

Don’t worry: Ove doesn’t fall for a younger woman who teaches him to live again via pop-music montage. Nor do the neighbor kids melt his heart in a contrived, cosmic reconciliation with the childhood that was deprived him. While the film’s message speaks to the importance of connection, Holm (and, presumably Backman’s novel) call upon the subtler ties of community and the benefits of stepping outside oneself in healing a damaged soul. A Man Called Ove is one of the year's best films. It speaks with authority to the blackest depths of sorrow, and finds humor there, along with a truth often overlooked in movies: that more than one kind of love conquers all. 

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