There are too many films about writers. Which makes sense in a "write what you know" sort of way but dramatically, the artistic struggles of those who pluck away at typewriters and keyboards aren't particularly interesting. That's why heavy doses of alcoholism, sex and drug abuse or backdrops of political upheaval tend to help things along. In absence of those, a good ol' bout of madness works wonders in a pinch.
Despite some flirtation with mental illness, filmmaker Joachim Trier (the nephew of Dogme 95 stylist Lars Von Trier) eschews those narrative affections to create the cinematic equivalent of an upstart literary novel. Love, ambition and depression are the focus of Reprise, a cleverly constructed but dramatically inert Norwegian import about intellectual rebels that name checks Dom DeLillo and Joy Division to establish its street cred.
After a witty opening where would-be novelists and BFF's Philip (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Høiner) drop their manuscripts into the mail, we're treated to fantastical imaginings of their impending success (riots in Africa, the despair of religious leaders), reality settles in to chart the real-world fits and starts of their budding careers. When the story jumps ahead six months, we learn that Erik's work was rejected while Philip's novel became an underground hit, which drove him into an obsessive love affair, an attempted suicide and residence at the local mental institution. Recovering from his imploded romance and dulled by anti-psychotics, he watches Erik's career suddenly blossom. But just as fortunes can turn, so can happiness flip. The two friends struggle to find their peace — one as an artist, the other as a functioning human — while fighting off the inevitable gloom of their Nordic surroundings. Their final destinations are empathetic and surprising but hardly compelling.
Trier litters Reprise with French New Wave sensibilities and punk-rock references but, aside from a few sharp jokes — especially Erik's calamitous appearance on a TV book chat show — generates few insights or sparks. The talented actors are very attractive but their characters are opaque and, well, too mopey. We have little idea about what they want or why and even the centerpiece of their efforts — their novels — goes unarticulated. There's a droll omniscient narrator (Get it? Just like a novel) who tosses off some observational gems but does little to enlighten us. We're never given any real idea about what Philip and Erik write about, and so the whole enterprise seems to be about hip youthful brooding and emotional nuance. It's the cinematic equivalent of a Shins tune.
While the lives of tormented artists has always been the province of literature, Reprise thankfully never crosses into sentimentality. Balancing irony and compassion, Trier has impeccable taste and restraint but like many of the books he's emulating, little storytelling ability. And so, the question becomes: Can you enjoy Reprise if you don't love intellectually postmodern novels and brooding navel-gazing that flirts with pretentiousness? Probably not.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.