There's a scene early on in Reprise where a young man is courting a girl, and the two are sharing their tastes and sensibilities. At one point, the couple bonds over the confession that neither really likes The Clash. The movie had me then: Most movies would take the safe route of depicting the couple nodding along gamely to that band's recycled ska rhythms and Joe Strummer's monotonous singing.
This scene of cultural one-upmanship is entirely consistent with Reprise's milieu of self-absorbed, ambitious young literary men. Something of a Gen X/Y Jules and Jim, this Norwegian production tells the story of Erik and Phillip, close friends and aspiring authors. Nothing if not a work of art in the age of celebrity and ironic awareness, the movie's narrator runs through the various possibilities of the type of literary fame each would acquire, settling on cult renown as the best outcome. But wait—this is all speculative, we realize, for the two men have yet to submit their manuscripts.
As it happens, Phillip's novel is accepted for publication, while Erik, the narrator tells us, learns what he's always feared, that he was "utterly without talent." But then, through the course of this rambunctious, smart and occasionally precious tale, their careers take surprising turns. Phillip, with his big soulful eyes and closely cut hair, seems to be the more gifted writer, but his turn in the literary limelight is cut short by crippling mental illness. Meanwhile, Erik, a lank, less charismatic middle-class boy who still lives with his mother, dutifully plods away on re-writing and re-submitting his manuscript, which he finally manages to publish after Phillip's career has flamed out.
But Reprise isn't simply a tale of two friends and their literary aspirations. Instead, the film is interested in the larger social circle of which these men are a part—their rough, doggedly adolescent relationships with other young men, and their infantile, fearful avoidance of bringing women into their circle. (In this, the film resembles I vitelloni, an early Fellini effort about overgrown boy-men in a small town.) Erik and Phillip's friends are from the Oslo hardcore punk scene, and the film wrings comedy from the contrast between their onstage histrionics and the lameness of their private lives in which they reach to German philosophy to explain why women aren't good enough for them. In several scenes, women violate the sacred male space—one of the film's funniest occurs when an earnest female interloper tries to hit it off with Erik, Phillip and their friends while sunbathing by the beach. She's interested in them as representatives of a new wave of Norwegian literature, and is shocked to find out they are, in fact, adolescent jackasses.
Erik and Phillip, the main figures of interest, are the smartest of the group. Erik even has a girlfriend, although we (and his friends) hardly see her because he fears she'll make him look like a sissy. The film's main love affair, however, occurs between Phillip and Kari, an attractive, high-cheekboned refugee from the hardcore scene. Their romance gradually becomes the heart of this ultimately nostalgic, tender film.
The writer and director is Joachim Trier, a Dane who is distantly related to Lars von Trier (the latter's "von" is fake, a student joke that stuck). The younger man's film bears no trace of von Trier's notorious Dogme aesthetic, but Reprise does resemble the high-wire technical flourishes of the older filmmaker's early work, especially Zentropa. Like that film, Joachim Trier employs an omniscient narrator and inventive, occasionally annoying editing tricks to expand narrative possibilities.
In fact, one distinctive element of Reprise is its exploration of things that might happen. It's hard to recall another film that makes so extensive use of the subjunctive mood in tracing the random occurrences that can shape a life—a Pulp lyric applies here: "Oh I could have stayed at home and gone to bed/ I could have gone to see a film instead/ You might have changed your mind and seen your friends/ Life could have been very different but then something changed."
Reprise opens Friday at the Chelsea.