When I asked a German film critic if there was a prototypical “Berlinale film” in the same way that there’s a prototypical “Sundance film,” he said that there was. “They are about foreign people with big problems,” he told me.
A young Latvian boy goes to extreme measures to afford the government’s tax on his bicycle so that he can deliver medicine to his sick mother. A lesbian inuit on a seal hunt gets trapped in an igloo with parents who resent her burgeoning sexuality. I could easily envision what he meant. Family drama. Cultural taboos. An air of the exotic. The idea of a “festival movie” is surprisingly universal.
So when Norwegian director Eskil Vogt’s Blind (which played both Berlin AND Sundance), opened with a sad looking woman with ghostly flaxen eyebrows describing how she had lost her sight, by way of a dramatic voiceover set to atmospheric piano music – “It’s only a matter of time before I forget my loved ones’ faces forever,” lead actress Ellen Dorrit Petersen solemnly intones – I thought I knew exactly what kind of film I was in for. Specifically, the “important” kind. The “powerful” kind. The kind that looks like a Sigur Ros video. The kind that’s about as much fun as doing your taxes while on hold with your cable company.
Well, I’m here to tell you, don’t be put off by the glowing reviews. As it turns out, Blind is not the festival movie you think it’s going to be. It’s not a dour film about the protagonist’s sad, blurry life meant to punish the bourgeois audience for our cushy lives of pointless affluence. Instead, it’s a playful, lightly perverse mindfuck told from the perspective of a character not meant to be pitied. Think Stranger Than Fiction meets Inception, with typically Scandinavian deadpan humor and matter-of-factness about sex.
[slightly NSFW trailer]
Ellen Dorrit Petersen plays Ingrid, the blind chick of the title, who’s either especially pale or sporting bleached eyebrows in a typical bit of “weird-looking eyes means blind” movie shorthand. Ingrid wasn’t born blind, so she hasn’t quite developed the Daredevil-level sensorial compensations that would allow her to live as a crime fighter, or even a sighted person. In one of the early scenes, Ingrid navigates her kitchen by feel alone, and even microwaves herself a big plate of pasta, only to dump the whole thing on the floor when she bangs her shin on the door of the dishwasher that she forgot she left open. Being blind is hard, seems to be the message here. Also, a blind person’s apartment is no place for pasta, but everyone knows that.
So far, so festival.
Other characters are introduced. A porn-addicted shut in with a dirty ginger ponytail. A shy mom looking for love. Ingrid’s doting husband. But soon, the movie becomes something else entirely as we begin to realize that what we’re watching isn’t subjective reality, but life as it is written by a blind woman with a healthy imagination. A conversation taking place at a cafe one minute becomes a moving city bus the next. Are the characters themselves even real, or just Ingrid’s inventions? Her husband goes off to work, and Ingrid gets drunk on wine. As she loses her inhibitions, the characters become more adventurous.
Normally, films about the life of the mind are intense, epic in scope, and permeated by sense that everything in them is supposed to be incredibly profound. Your thoughts are Important! They’re the MOST important! But Blind is charmingly light-hearted. Inception was a heist movie. Blind is basically a wife’s fan fiction about the imagined secret life of her husband when she lets her insecurities get the best of her. Which sort of makes it like a female Scott Pilgrim, where the protagonist’s relationship fears take physical form. A blind, female Scott Pilgrim. That one’s all yours, Blind marketing department.
It’s all based on the idea that for a blind woman, whose vision is the same whether her eyes are open or closed, the barrier between dreams and reality can be terribly thin. That idea becomes a sandbox for first-time director Vogt to play in, and it’s fun to watch him build and smash castles.
Whereas Pilgrim and Inception are clearly signposted and somewhat reductive – here is how this real thing manifests itself in the dream reality and here are the rules of that reality! – Blind is idiosyncratic. Real people and characters Ingrid has invented aren’t clearly delineated, and relationships between them are all a-tangle. It works, because it reflects Ingrid’s tangled sense of reality, and because of the consistently clever way in which Vogt handles it. Ingrid isn’t a plucky ingenue. She’s a real person with biases, obsessions, perversions, a cheeky sense of humor, and a naked body that she sometimes shows for some reason (this is a European film, after all). Not that I’m complaining.
In one scene, Ingrid recalls a comment a friend made about never having seen a black person on a bicycle. Two or three scenes later, Ingrid wanders down a street alone, having to ask a passerby for directions. A passerby who happens to be, you guessed it, a black guy with a bicycle. Which of course, she can’t tell, because she’s blind. It’s a joke that has levels. And it’s not shouted at you or indicated with orange cones and flashing lights, it’s merely delivered with a wry smirk, subtle enough that you might miss it.
Vogt has delivered, in one movie, a comedy that doesn’t elbow you in the ribs and a “disability drama” that doesn’t grab you by the lapels screaming “ISN’T THIS SAD?!” It’s just an honest, playful, creative film, which is a breath of fresh air, in or out of the context of a film festival.
I still don’t know what was up with those eyebrows though. Blind people have weird eyebrows? I don’t get it.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.