'The Real Estate' ('Toppen av ingenting'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

A powerful argument for demolition.

Swedish co-directors Axel Petersen and Mans Mansson pop the Stockholm housing bubble in this grotesque black comedy about a cash cow that becomes a white elephant.

What to say about The Real Estate? When the main thing keeping you awake and somewhat attentive is the constant stream of people stepping over you to get the hell out of the theater mid-screening, it doesn't speak well of a movie's chances in the marketplace — particularly given that Berlin audiences tend generally to be patient and open-minded even with the most challenging fare. But this grim absurdist comedy about the rancid state of the Swedish housing market and its corrupting effect on a reluctant new landlady is aesthetically unpleasant and thematically blunt in its tireless hammering of the same socioeconomic note.

Co-directed by Axel Petersen and Mans Mansson from a script by Petersen, the film is so willfully abrasive on every level that its inclusion in the Berlin festival's main competition might be intended as a provocation. However, it's more likely to be greeted with a shrug of indifference by most viewers who make it through to the end — which was roughly half the audience at the first press screening. The fact that the project went through a string of festival developmental labs suggests there was something promising here on paper, but the end result is artless in the extreme.

Leonore Ekstrand appeared in Petersen's 2011 debut feature Avalon, a slightly more nuanced indictment of aging middle-class Swedish spoiled brats. Here, she plays Nojet, a leathery ex-pat in her late 60s, who has been baking on Spanish beaches for 25 years at the expense of her father. When the old man dies at 97, she returns to Stockholm, her grief allowing plenty of time for her to stop by a hairdressing salon for a quick blowout. Her hairdresser gets straight to the crux of the movie in a rant about the city's out-of-control real estate market and soaring interest rates. With the housing shortage at a peak, virtually the only legal way for young people to find a home of their own is courtesy of wealthy parents.

Nojet wastes no time inquiring about the main asset she has inherited, a monstrous eyesore of an apartment block where tenants have been paying well below market value in rent, their occupancy apparently hinging on dodgy leases acquired through black-market intermediaries. She stops by the rundown building and quickly overcomes her reserve, asking intrusive questions about the residents' employment and immigration status, as well as their leases.

Her slow-witted stepbrother Mickey (Olof Rhodin) and his son Chris (Christian Saldert), a boozing slob, have been responsible for maintenance on the property and doing a visibly poor job of it. They are immediately antsy about their ongoing management role. Chris gives Nojet an earful about her lack of compassion toward immigrants and other low-income tenants, as he chomps on the celery from his morning Bloody Mary.

There's an initially energizing friction rippling through these scenes, but the comedy of awkwardness seldom lands. That's perhaps in part because the cast is composed mainly of nonprofessionals — a number of them plucked directly from the Stockholm real estate sector — incapable of bringing depth or subtlety to their roles. It also doesn't help that an assaultive soundscape with incongruous music choices like pounding techno muddies any sense of what the intended tone might be.

Nojet seeks an ally in her father's lawyer crony Lex (Christer Levin), who steers her toward developer Carl Serum (Carl Johan Merner) for a possible quick sale. He seems interested, but after a night of dining, drinking and some of the ugliest sex in recent screen memory — Mansson shot the film with a wobbly hand-held camera, it appears consciously opting for unflattering angles and flat lighting — Carl abruptly cools on the deal. Lex enlightens her to the minefield of trouble that embedded tenants can bring by forming a residents co-op to block any sale. Apparently, Nojet's windfall is more of a curse, with no way to make a profit, putting her hopes of financial independence in jeopardy.

After being injured in a violent altercation with Chris, the increasingly desperate and irrational Nojet takes refuge at Lex's farm out of town, where his extensive weapons arsenal includes a submachine gun. There, she becomes a budding warrior; she also gets busy online studying The Anarchist's Cookbook, boning up on how to make a Molotov cocktail. But the movie has been headed down a predictable path toward destruction and disaster even before then, and doesn't really know what to do once it gets there.

Oh, it should also be mentioned that Lex doubles as a music producer, working on a benefit for the homeless. That means we get to witness a bizarre dance-theater rehearsal to a song titled "Homeless Life," later heard again as a dub mix being recorded in a studio. The irony hits like a brick.

Stories of slum landlords who turn to arson and other unethical solutions to get rid of pesky tenants are not exclusive to Sweden — New York and San Francisco certainly had their share going back to the '70s and '80s. But The Real Estate is so heavy-handed in its social observations, so annoying in its rarely funny stabs at humor, and so successful at making every one of its characters entirely unsympathetic that it seems solely of local interest, if that.

In vague ways, it invites comparison with the minor Lars von Trier effort The Idiots, a mostly forgotten anti-bourgeois satire from 1998 that at least had the advantage of being genuinely ballsy in its aggressive attack on political correctness. Petersen and Mansson's film also casts doubt on the sanity of every character in the mix, though that doesn't make it any less of a toxic bore. For the record, the original Swedish title Toppen av ingenting, translates as "Top of Nothing," a bridge term designed to give a possibly misleading indication of the player's opening hand.

Production companies: Flybridge, in association with Across the Alley, Entertainment International, Giants & Toys
Cast: Leonore Ekstrand, Christer Levin, Christian Saldert, Olof Rhodin, Carl Johan Merner, Don Bennechi
Directors: Axel Petersen, Mans Mansson
Screenwriter: Axel Petersen
Producers: Sigrid Helleday, Mans Mansson
Director of photography: Mans Mansson
Costume designer: Ellen Utterstrom
Music: Tom Skinner, Zapatilla, Axel Boman, Don Bennechi
Editors: George Cragg, Anna Brunstein
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Match Factory

88 minutes