A Man Called Ove (M). Director: Hannes Holm. Starring: Rolf Lassgård, Bahar Pars, Filip Berg, Ida Engvoll. 116 minutes
[Trigger warning: suicide]
On paper, a film about a lonely widower who repeatedly attempts suicide seems like a grim proposition. In fact this Swedish comedy-drama is about as humorous and humane a film as you are likely to see this year. It turns primarily on the detailed and deeply felt performance of Scandinavian screen veteran Lassgård as Ove, a man who has decided to join his beloved wife Sonja (Engvoll) in eternity.
The catalyst for this is the loss of his job early in the film. Ove finds himself at a loose end, if not entirely purposeless. He is the self-appointed overseer of the trim gated community where he has lived for years, enforcing protocols of behaviour among his terrorised neighbours. At the same time, the loss of his job is one too many blows from an existence that has not always been kind to him.
But dying doesn't come easily to Ove. He is continually interrupted in his attempts. His bid to throw himself in front of a train is thwarted when someone else (almost) beats him to it. He abandons a noose strung from his living room ceiling when new neighbours arrive next door and he is compelled to instruct them on community protocols surrounding cars and trailers.
These encounters illuminate an unexpected aspect of Ove's character. His gruff demands for order and civility — his daily rounds of the community to check that gates are locked, bikes stowed, dogs kept from defecating inappropriately — are marks of a strong sense of what's right, and in fact of a sense of duty to his fellow human beings. It is this more than anything that keeps him going.
It leads to unexpected friendships. He bluntly quizzes a local youth about his sexuality, yet when the boy confesses that he is in fact gay, accepts the news matter-of-factly; later Ove supports the boy during a family row. The new neighbour, Parveneh (Pars), an Iranian immigrant, enlists Ove to babysit her children, and to teach her to drive, since the fact that she can't infuriates him so.
"Mistaking lack of speech for incomprehension, Ove confides in him his wish to die. When he goes to leave, he finds his old friend has grasped him, his eyes turned toward him."
Parveneh is undaunted by his ill temper, and becomes his confidante. Through his conversations with her, and through extended flashbacks as he reflects on his life while contemplating death, we learn the history of Ove and Sonja. It is marked by awkward romance and shocking tragedy, and the revelation of these events fills in for us, the audience, the soft middle of Ove's rough edges.
We learn, too, the origins of Ove's dislike of bullies and bureaucrats (of which he encounters several in the film), and of his rocky friendship with one neighbour, who these days is in a wheelchair. Mistaking immobility and lack of speech for incomprehension, Ove confides in this man about his wish to die. When he goes to leave, he finds his old friend has grasped him, his eyes turned toward him.
Amid the high drama elsewhere in the film, it is such small moments that are most powerfully affecting, grounding A Man Called Ove with exceedingly touching insights into ordinary human experience and emotion.
Tim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.