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Norwegian writer-director Erik Skjoldbjaerg is perhaps best known for writing and directing Insomnia (1997), a taut Arctic Circle-set thriller which Christopher Nolan remade with Robin Williams and Al Pacino. Ever since a presumably unhappy experience in the US directing the ill-fated adaptation of Prozac Nation, he’s been back on home ground and on a tear, creating some quietly powerful dramas grounded in Norway’s recent history, from Stavanger-set heist picture Nokas to oil-rig-set Pioneer.
His latest, Pyromaniac, may be the best yet although it’s possibly the most low-key and intimate of the lot. Based, like Nokas, on a true story, it dramatizes the story of a disturbed small-town arsonist (a coiled Trond Hjort Nilssen) whose motivations aren’t explained exactly although parallels with right-wing mass murderer Anders Breivik and church burners like Varg Vikernes aren’t hard to see. Exposure at the Toronto film festival should generate offshore sales to specialist distributors worldwide for this haunting, lushly hi-def work.
There’s no whodunit component to Pyromaniac because from the very first scenes it’s clear that 19-year-old Dag (Nilssen) is the one starting fires in the isolated homesteads of the dispersed town of Finsland, located deep in the dense forest of Southern Norway. What’s even stranger is that Dag is the only son of the local volunteer fire department’s chief Ingemann (Per Frisch), and when the at first small conflagrations Dag starts are eventually discovered, he’s the one who rides alongside his father in the big truck to put them out.
Why Dag has this strange pyromaniacal version of Munchhausen Syndrome by proxy is never quite spelled out, although the sparsity of the dialogue makes what little the audience learns about D, ag stand our more starkly. He has recently returned from doing his national service in the armed forces, so perhaps he was traumatized by some hazing ritual. Perhaps there was violence at home in the past from Ingemann towards either Dag and/or Dag’s mother, the long-suffering, stoical Alma (Liv Bernhoft Osa). The pop psychology of movie arsonist would suggest there’s some kind of repressed sexual component at play, and Dag’s fascination with pretty villager Elsa (Agnes Kittelsen) and inability to mingle with kids his own age would seem to support that theory.
Whatever it was that seeded the pyromania, it clearly relates to a deep-seated but tightly repressed well of rage, a hostility projecting outward from Dag at the almost menacingly affable, conformist society of the town. A long shot of the townsfolk singing a patriotic song contains a large hint of menace, and the way that everyone immediately assumes that the arsonist must be an outsider evokes a xenophobia never far from the surface. Breivik, too, hated foreigners while the bombings of Norwegian churches in the 1990s were linked to white supremacists so extreme they felt Christianity was a foreign ideology.
Skjoldbjaerg, working with Bjorn Olaf Johannessen’s oblique screenplay, drops hints but lets the viewer draw her own conclusions as the film becomes increasingly tense and menacing with each burning. Like the protagonists depicted in Elephant (both the Alan Clarke film and the one by Gus Van Sant), Dag is observed with detachment as he methodically goes about his work incinerated houses and buildings around him, carefully covering his tracks. Gradually, he grows bolder about letting himself be seen and more reckless with others’ lives, creating a chilling, subjective study of psychopathology. The hyper-pretty magic hour lighting of so many of the scenes and the way Gosta Reiland’s widescreen lensing invites us to share Dag’s fascination with flames somehow makes it all the more disturbing.
Production companies: A Glor Film AS presentation of a Nordisk Film, Bleck Film, Neue Road Movies Zweite production
Cast: Trond Hjort Nilssen, Per Frisch, Liv Bernhoft Osa, Henrik Rafaelsen, Oddgeir Thune, Agnes Kittelsen, Gerdi Schjelderup
Director: Erik Skjoldbjaerg
Screenwriter: Bjorn Olaf Johannessen
Producers: Edward A. Dreyer, Aage Aaberge
Executive producers: John Einar Hagen, Geir Eikeland, Stig Haug
Director of photography: Gosta Reiland
Production designer: Kristine Wilhelmsen
Costume designer: Anne Pedersen
Editor: Sverrir Kristjansson
Music: Gaute Tonder
Visual effects supervisor: Mats Andersen
Casting: Celine Engebrigtsen
No rating, 96 minutes
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