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En man som heter Ove

October 21, 2016
En man som heter Ove

Swedish films seem to have split into two popular genres. Famously there are crime stories like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Easy Money, but then a couple years ago The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared made a splash as a “grumpy old man” story. And now comes En man som heter Ove, subtitled in English as A Man Called Ove.

But where The Hundred-Year-Old Man turned outwards — using Allan Karlsson as a lens to look back over the past century, Forrest Gump style — Ove turns inwards, looking at the man himself as a representative of his generation. Ove (Rolf Lassgård) feels abandoned and ignored. His friends are aging and dying; his wife has already passed; he gets pushed into retirement at the job which gave his life meaning. All he has left is his certainty about the importance of rules and order, and even that earns little more than an eyeroll from the younger residents of his community.

But where does that insistence on the Right Way to do things come from? It’s easy enough to dismiss the curmudgeon, but even he was a child once. Through a series of flashbacks (in which he is played by Filip Berg), Ove remembers how he came to this place, and we learn to see him as more than just a crabby old man. Meanwhile, Ove himself starts to see the people around him as more than just irreverent and irresponsible young whippersnappers.

A lot has been made of the fact that one of his newer neighbors, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), is part of Sweden’s growing immigrant population, as is a young gay man who crops up in one subplot. The ways that the older, more ethnically homogenous Sweden comes to grips with the new pluralism are important, but I think there’s more going on here than that.

Ove doesn’t just put stock in rules and regulations to impose order on a chaotic and sometimes frightening world. Rules are one way of realizing a social contract; they define and bind a community. Ove can snarl at “the communists who make us separate our trash”, but since that rule has been adopted he has just as much scorn for those who don’t follow it. Whether or not he personally agrees with it, following the rule is important to him, and to disregard it is to disregard the importance of the community — a violation tantamount to treason.

What Ove is really locked into is not so much a sense of national identity, but a sense of what makes a community, and what place he has in it. As mores and norms change — and yes, the ethnic composition too — the social contract must be renegotiated. And sometimes its very nature will be altered. The rules may stay or go, but they can’t be assumed to hold just because they always have before. They may have arisen from a community, and may have helped bind it, but the community defines its rules, not the other way around.

The great irony is that Ove’s hated white-shirt bureaucrats are themselves a symptom of this same mistake. Bureaucracy arises when rules are abstracted and reified beyond their connection to any community of real human interactions. Someone, somewhere decides that a rickety old house has to be replaced by a newer development, and when the man living in it tries to slap on a fresh coat of paint they snarl “idiot” and roll their eyes at his disregard for the Way Things Are. It’s only connection and communication that can restore the community and make it a place worth living in again.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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