Kunsten Å Tenke Negativt, (The Art of Thinking Negatively) 2006 / 35 mm / Colour / 79 min, Dir. Bård Breien, Norway.
Definitely one of the few great movies i saw at the World Film Festival in Montreal this year.
The setting is a “positive thinking” self-help group for people struggling with disabilities and depression, run by Tori, an offensively pat and insincere State-appointed social worker. The story unfolds as this group melts down in its efforts to “save” Geirr, a depressed and angry man in a wheelchair who would rather do dope, get drunk and play russian roulette than stay focussed on other people’s ideas of what he has to live for.
i think this movie “works” so well because of the feeling of disgust that we all feel when confronted with inauthentic sympathy, with people who have it easy telling others to “just look on the bright side”. This film stretches this fairly common feeling into one where we the audience are left identifying with the depressed and wheelchair-bound characters in this movie, with their pent up resentment and even hatred of their “compassionate” care-givers, whose own emotional disabilities can end up overshadowing mere spinal cord injury.
In this regard the character Gard, whose own carelessness left his partner Marte a quadraplegic, is by far the best, and the most loathsome, of the bunch. Obsessed with himself and with how difficult Marte’s condition is on him, he explains in an aside that “they” have it easy, as “they” can just sit in their wheelchairs all day and other people look after them. After he dumps Marte, Geirr congratulates this prick for having his whole life ahead of him: “You’ve got it all. Except for brains, looks or personality that is.”
Geirr’s role in this movie is clear from the beginning. He is the truth teller, and telling it straight is more important than “feeling good” or “having hope” or anything else that other people may obsess over. “Fuck people with friends, fuck people with families, fuck people with their whole lives ahead of them,” is how he puts it in one scene. When he gets Marte stoned and she starts insisting she can feel her legs he wheels up to her and explains that pot just can’t do that. When the depressed Lillemor – who was a “normal” housewife until her husband dumped her for a younger woman, and who is still not quite sure as to whether she is truly one of the “suffering” – looks at the group and shouts that she doesn’t belong with people like that, that she’s a normal person and belongs with normal people, it is up to Geirr to point out that this may be true, except that normal people don’t want to have anything to do with her.
The film ends with an unlikely reconciliation between all involved, and things seem to be going better because they were allowed to go worse. “We should do this more often – just we’ll call it a party and not a meeting,” says one character. Even Tori is allowed back, and when she sees how good everyone is feeling Geirr points out that she too will feel better once she learns “the art of negative thinking.”
The humour in this film comes from the tension between authentic suffering and insincere compassion. My only ambivalence in watching was to how much of its appeal involved me, with both arms and legs working fine, using “disabled” characters as a metaphor for “real suffering”, and getting a funny thrill from having people break taboos and “tell it like it is” in the safety of a film…