Fjellet/The Mountain (2011) is the debut feature film of Norwegian director Ole Giæver. Released in 2011, The film has an extremely minimal storyline, yet a very dynamic and deep emotional-line. It terms of the narrative events it can be described simply as a film about Nora (played by actress Marte Magnusdotter Solem) and Solveig (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), a two women couple who goes on a cathartic four-day hiking trip to a snowy mountain in the interior of Norway, after the loss of their 4 year-old child in what appears to have been result of an accident on the top of that same mountain a couple of years before. The go on the hike, they climb the mountain and they reach its top. The narrative events and its storyline are minimal, yet The Mountain has two great achievements. Firstly, it creates the conditions to engage us spectators in a dynamic flow of emotions, as an alternative to story events. Secondly, it makes a powerful use of the experiential aspects of the site of the story to cue some of that emotional content that is not fully delivered through verbal communication but in fact through our senses in connection to the natural elements of climate and the material composition of the landscape.
It may seem that such minimal choices for story events and narrative development would have made it easier for Giæver to have a control on the making of The Mountain, since. However, I believe it is precisely the opposite. But dimming down the external events, he creates a focus on the inner events of the two women, who are then exposed and confronted with their emotions and with the psychology of their interaction. Both actresses have, in my opinion, a terrific performance, and both were nominated for the prestigious Norwegian film awards Amanda. By dimming down the narrative events, Giæver sets a cinematic focus on the non-verbal interaction between the two women with the sensory and experiential elements of nature mediating that relationship.
The two exposition shots are paradigmatic of Giæver’s use of landscape and are a blueprint of his approach to the cinematic site. In the first shot we see a full scale long shot of the mountain the two women are about to climb, the second shot is a close-up of a thermos (the thermos the child had on him/her at the time of his/her death) on the top of the mountain. Then, cuts to black, and the film begins with Nora and Solveig already engaged in their walking. First their feet and legs ands no image of their faces. By gradually scaling down the shots, Giæver is approaching the mountain in its details, where we can not only see the textures of the materials (the flowers and bushes, the snow, the stones) but have a sensory experience of them. The small scale which the film uses makes a shift from the mountain as a uniform and solid volume to a complex and nuanced body. This is a fascinating way for film to capture natural landscape and it shows that cinematic space is not something pre-existent but something that is constructed through the camera work and through the lenses of a director. In this case, the mountain goes from a space which we (and the characters) see to a space in which we (through the mediation of the camera and the characters) experience with our senses. The first approach is show its shape to sight, the second approach is show its presence to the senses. Through showing its presence to the senses, the mountain becomes not just the site of the world of the film but part of the story itself.
This approach, and cinematic attitude, helps to Giæver’s challenging of genre boundaries. Films set in mountains, or in natural scenarios, are usually within certain genre conventions of the adventure film or the thriller, or other genres where natural sites offer stories of survival. However, what Giæver does, which to me challenges some of our genre expectations, is to use a site that is usually used for external action for, instead, the development of emotional contents. This can be valid for audiences in general, but it will
be even more relevant for Norwegian audiences. Norwegian are all be, to different extents, familiarised with hiking in the nature. Hiking occupies a cultural role of bonding between people. Thus, I see The Mountain as a film that drinks some of this cultural context and adapts it to film. It is, to me, an excellent way to exemplify how the local and regional aspects of a culture, geography and climate can be transposed to the more global and universal language of cinema. There seem to be some relation between our drive for locomotive activities (such as walking, but also skateboarding and driving) and our emotions (see my essay on The Cinema of Walking).
In this case, emotions are defined by the memories of the trauma that the two women carry. They may have memories of the same event but the two women have, however, not only different emotional contents related to the traumatic loss of their child but also different coping mechanisms. The contrast between their emotions and their coping mechanisms is what drives the dynamics of the film, which is to me an interesting alternative to a more conventional storyline of external events. The film starts with Nora closed as a vault, leaving no possibility for Solveig to reach in to her emotions. In contrast, Solveig’s emotions are more transparent. She will easily cry and feel distress which generates reactions of frustration from Nora. Initially, it may appear that Nora is strong and Solveig is emotionally weak, but as the film unfolds we realise that it is just that Solveig is perhaps more courageous in letting her emotions show, whereas Nora is repressing her emotions.
Solveig could represent an emotional way of coping with trauma and Nora a rational way. However, their emotional progression will show the opposite. In the first of the film, their interactions will be impelled by two opposite tensions, that of Solveig, who tries to be transparent in her emotional coping, and that of Nora, who is impenetrable. As the tension builds up, Solveig becomes increasingly frustrated, until she starts being more physical and aggressive. After a confrontational event where Solveig pushes Nora, Nora starts breaking her resistance and slowly becomes more open. The climax of the film shows their resolution to climb the last segment of the mountain and reach the top where the accident happened. After reaching the site of the accident, Nora cries. It may seem not strong of a reaction to the climax of a film, but indeed it results from a gradual building up of tension which is in the basis of a transformational movement from Nora. Therefore, her cry is not a mere direct reaction tot he memories of the trauma, but it is a cry for herself, for her transformation and for the fact that that transformation from locking up her emotions to being more open resulted from the love resilience of Solveig, who also changes by becoming more confident, an awareness she gains from also from having Nora as a the reflect in a mirror.
The film’s lack of plot is not, as I see it, a flaw, but simply a stimulating alternative to the moving forward of our interest in a film through an emotional engagement between the characters. What the film lacks in narrative events, as external events coordinated in a cause-effect manner, it exceeds in the construction of a dynamic map of emotional contents that are connected to the themes (trauma, love) which gains body through the sober and well achieved acting of Magnusdotter Solem and Dorrit Petersen, and also through the exemplary directorial work of Giæver, who does not simply show the mountain as the background to the story, but the mountain as a body with experiential and sensory presence and with the capacity to shape the aesthetics of the film and the emotional journey of the two women.
By Luis Rocha Antunes
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