“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
Jens Lien’s 2006 film The Bothersome Man begins with a suicide. Actually it begins with a couple on a train platform kissing each other like two zombies mindlessly trying to swallow each other. Their eyes are open, their faces are expressionless and they just mush their faces together with joyless determination. Then we cut to a man watching them. He too is expressionless and, with equally lifeless affect, he throws himself in front of a moving train. This is how Lien’s comedy begins.
The name of the newly dead man is Andreas and he has just earned his passage into what appears to be the afterlife. The place that he goes is never given a name. It could be any number of places but one thing is for sure it is maniacally ordinary. Andreas is given a job, an apartment, a suit and a car and is expected to just join a completely lifeless (pun intended) society of aggressively bland and ordinary folk. The food has no taste, the booze doesn’t get you drunk, and the sex seems mechanical.
As a director Lien shares some qualities with Roy Anderson and Jaques Tati. All three directors are able to make ordinary life seem spectacularly absurd without having to resort to sensationalized absurdist imagery, or circus like antics. They manage to remove us from the world and give us just a little bit of an outsider’s point of view so that the ordinary operations of society seem ridiculous and often hilarious. Much of it has to do with timing. There are edits in all their films where simply cutting to the next scene is the punchline. All three directors work in deadpan. Anderson is perhaps the the best at it, but they each has their own style. Liens lends a gory element that really drives home the meaninglessness of existence. You can cut off your finger or not cut off your finger, it really doesn’t make any difference. It just goes plop on the floor and roles away, leaving a little trail of blood on the spotless tile floor. It will grow back in a few hours and it will be as if nothing ever happened.
My favorite scene inTerry Gilliam’s Brazil is really just an image. Its an endless, perfectly clean hallway lined with identical doors. In front of one of them is a single drop of blood on the clean, white floor. A tiny sign of humanity dwarfed by the oppressive efficiency of bureaucratic architecture.
The Bothersome Man features the sterility of corporate culture but extends this culture to the home where men and women live vapid lives centered on catalogues and furniture. The viewer is given false hope when Andreas meets Anne and they begin a sexual relationship. We hope that love and sex will cure what ails our awkward protagonist but it is just as empty and boring as everything else. Andreas even tries having an affair but when he goes to break up with first girlfriend she doesn’t seem surprised, disturbed, angry or anything other than limply contented.
Andreas: “I’m going to leave you”
Anne: “ We are having guests on Saturday”
Andreas: “I haven’t found an exact time, but I wanted you to know.”
Anne: “Are you leaving before Saturday?”
Andreas: “I can stay until Saturday”
Anne: “That would be good”
Once it is established that love and marriage are not a refuge the claustrophobia and paranoia begin to feel like, Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1956) or The Stepford Wives (1975). These films had pointed messages about communism, feminism and conformity, The Bothersome Man does not readily reveal why Andreas is bothersome or bothered. Andreas’ is not simply an outcast he is more like an unassimilated, uncomfortable immigrant who is willing to try but just can’t share the blithe contented attitude his peers so effortlessly maintain.
His wanting his food to have flavor is the same as his wanting his life to have purpose and fulfillment. There is nothing in this new world for him until he finds the mysterious hole in the wall. Orwell gave poor Winston the warmth and hope of Julia. Lien gives Andeas the muffled sound of music and the aroma of pastry mysteriously emanating from a dark basement wall.
Its is much like the myth of Tantalus. Tantalus tried to steal ambrosia from the gods of Olympus but was caught and punished for eternity. He was placed in a lake under a fruit tree. Each time he reached for a fruit the branches woulds rise out of reach. If he tried to sip from the lake the waters would recede away.
Andreas’ displeasure with his world is only worsened by the sense that there is an alternate one that smells and sounds better just out of his reach. The thoughts of a better life make his current life unbearable. Worse than the meaningless rat race he left on earth, he is now trapped in a rat race with no finish line, You can do your job, or not, you can have sex or not, you can throw yourself in front of a dozen trains, which he tries, but it will just continue forever. What can make Sisyphus’ meaningless labor worse? A dream of what he could be doing instead.
The Bothersome Man is a dark film full of dread and yet its a comedy. There is something about Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and all those Nordic folk up there that allow them to find genuine joy in the very things that Nietzsche so deeply feared.
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