‘Sex’ Review: Norwegian Prize Winner Is Complex And Dialogue-Driven First Entry In Dag Johan Haugerud’s Ambitious Trilogy – Berlin Film Festival

Don’t get too hot and bothered over the title of the new Norwegian film Sex. The act itself in this first entry in a new trilogy from writer-director Dag Johan Haugerud is really only just talked about in this intriguing movie mostly dependent on leaning into its main characters’ words and descriptions, not a whole lot of visual information. Winner of the Europa Cinemas Label as Best European Film in the Panorama section of the current Berlin Film Festival, where it had its world premiere this week, Haugerud has announced this as this first of three films — Sex, Dreams, and then Love — featuring the same cast and dealing overall with themes of desire, identity and freedom, not to mention sexuality and the place of gender in our lives and society. This first stand-alone film also leans heavily into masculinity in ways it is not normally discussed by guys, but they do here in profound ways in this thought-provoking movie that also puts a spotlight on Norway’s signature city, Oslo.

Haugerud’s dialogue-driven screenplay is full of monologues delivered in talky exchanges either with two male colleagues (neither ever identified by name) at a chimney sweep company and/or their wives. It opens with the supervisor (Thorbjørn Harr) telling someone unseen about a dream in which he encounters David Bowie, who mistakes him for a woman. The dream is told in detail and clearly disturbs him as he has never had such a vivid depiction of gender, his gender and image as seen by others, presented in such a graphic situation, dreams or not. The camera soon reveals he is not talking to a therapist (my first thought) but rather a co-worker (Jan Gunnar Røise), who then decides, however tentatively at first, to reveal a recent real-life encounter he had with a man in the kitchen of a home where he was working on the chimney, a stranger who he says was eyeing him as an object of desire and point-blank asks if he would like to join him for sex. He tells his colleague he immediately turned it down — both these workers are married — but after leaving quickly came back where he says he did engage in sex with the man after all. On top of that he even, ever so matter-of-factly, tells his wife (Siri Forberg) all about it afterward.

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You might imagine the story didn’t go down well, and for the rest of the 2-hour and 5-minute running time her role is all about increasingly being deeply disturbed about what all this means, not just for their marriage but for her, their family, and if her husband is actually homosexual. He assures everyone in these intimate and long-winded conversations that just because he did it once with a man doesn’t mean he is an alcoholic, as it were. Harr’s character also comes to admit to his wife (a more understanding Birgitte Larsen) his own weird David Bowie-viewing-him-as-a woman dreams and has to digest the fact that, more than the effect on his marriage, is what it means to his own lifelong understanding of his identity and the way he is seen.

Once we are out of these heavy if sometimes droll discussions, Haugerud manages to lighten it all up a bit when Harr’s character takes his son Hans Petter (Adrian Jenure Skaaland) to a doctor (a wonderfully succinct and natural Anne Marie Ottersen) in order to look at the boy’s injured hand, but at the same time asks her about his own ailments. In somewhat quirky fashion, she launches into a story about two young gay men, one of whom is quite ill. Haugerud suddenly thrusts us into flashbacks to tell this story within a story. I, for one, was happy to get out of the claustrophobic conversations sparked by the chimney sweeps’ revelations and into something else, anything else. The slow and deliberate pacing, with minimal camera movement for so many of the scenes between them and their wives, makes it all feel longer than it is.

All that said, Sex is full of wry observations about human behavior and life’s unanswered questions about who we really are, told in muted almost deadpan style by the superbly chosen company of actors, particularly Røise and Harr who are pitch-perfect. The camera work, which also puts the spotlight on Oslo itself, is expertly done by Cecile Semec. And as seems fitting for a movie this probing, it all ends with a musical dance sequence — of course –– where Harr’s character performs with his choir group on stage, as Røise’s character and his entire family, now seemingly content to go with life as it was before, look on from the audience. No explanations necessary, but maybe we will get one as the trilogy proceeds to its next chapter.

Producers are Yngve Saether and Hege Hauff Hvattum.

Title: Sex
Festival: Berlin (Panorama)
Director-screenwriter: Dag Johan Haugerud
Cast: Jan Gunnar Roise, Thorbjorn Harr, Siri Forberg, Birgitte Larsen, Nasrin Khusrawy, Hadrian Jenure Skaaland, Theo Dahl, Anne Marie Ottersen
Sales agent: M Appeal
Running time: 2 hr 5 min

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