Writers are constantly being told to write what they know—a perfectly sensible dictum that nonetheless presents the screenwriter with a serious dilemma. What any writer mostly knows, of course, is writing. Trouble is, few things are less cinematic than some dude sitting alone at a computer (or a typewriter, if you decide to go period) trying to work out what word comes next. And so we get movies like Reprise, from Norway, that are ostensibly about the literary world but strenuously avoid any shots of the characters practicing their lonely and visually tedious craft. Instead, behavioral tics multiply like useless adjectives in an attempt to fill the void.
Written and directed by Joachim Trier—reportedly a distant relative of Danish provocateur Lars von Trier (Lars pretentiously added the “von” himself)—Reprise features not one but two aspiring wordsmiths, best friends since childhood. Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie) is the more stereotypically sensitive of the pair; his first novel has been published to great success, but his obsession with girlfriend Kari (Viktoria Winge) has landed him in a psych ward. Meanwhile, his more easygoing pal Erik (Espen Klouman-Høiner) struggles both to escape from a raucously unsophisticated peer gro++up (most of whom belong to a failed Oslo punk band) and to publish his second novel, which he insists on burdening with the aggressively pompous title Prosopopoeia.
As if to compensate for his heroes’ potentially dull vocation, Trier pours on the style right from the get-go: hypothetical flash-forwards that suggest paths not taken; an omniscient narrator who dryly comments on the inaction; near-frantic editing usually reserved for movies involving a lot more substance abuse. But no amount of nouvelle-vague posturing can disguise the fact that there just isn’t much to these mildly tortured young men apart from some vague post-collegiate floundering. A recent, little-seen French film, Poison Friends (available on DVD), tackles the same subject with the degree of savage candor it demands, in part because it’s not about writing but about not writing. Which is to say, it’s about human behavior rather than affectation.