by Mel Valentin
SCREENED AT THE 2008 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Norwegian director’s Bård Breien’s feature film debut, "The Art of Negative Thinking" ("Kunsten å tenke negativt"), is a scabrous, scathing, satirical black comedy that skewers feel-good, ignore-reality self-help groups and the psychiatrists or therapists who push those simple-minded therapies on their patients. Or so Bård Breien would have us believe, thanks (or no thanks) to his mean-spirited, bitter protagonist, Geirr (Fridtjov Såheim), a disabled man angry at the accident that cost him the use of his legs and left him impotent. When he’s not berating his wife, Ingvild (Kirsti Eline Torhaug), to leave him and find another man, Geirr gets drunk or stoned (or both), watches Vietnam War films ("Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter" are among his favorites), or listens to American music (Johnny Cash is Geirr’s favorite). Geirr hates the world and everyone in it.The peculiarities of Norwegian social services are such that they send Tori (Kjersti Holmen), a therapist happily putting her philosophy of “positive thinking” with her therapy group to Geirr’s house, regardless of his desire to be treated to interact with Tori’s group. Tori’s group includes Marte (Marian Saastad Ottesen), a buoyant blonde with a perpetual smile (she’s a quadriplegic), her guilt-ridden husband, Gard (Henrik Mestad), Asbjørn (Per Schaaning), an introverted stroke survivor, and Lillemor (Kari Simonsen), a lonely middle-aged woman and chronic complainer. The self-satisfied, smug, always-in-control Tori thinks a little tough love will convince Geirr to join the group, but Geirr resists, first verbally, then through increasingly outrageous behavior. Slowly but surely, Geirr begins to break Tori’s hold over the therapy group.
"Scathing, best-of-fest satire. Must see filmmaking."
Given the setting, Geirr’s house, it’d be easy to confuse The Art of Negative Thinking for a stage play adapted for the cinematic medium, especially given the brief, 80-minute running time. It’s not. It’s a wholly original work by Bård Breien. By turns insightful, hilariously painful and brutally honest, The Art of Negative Thinking is, on its own, a testament to Bård Breien’s talents as a filmmaker. While Breien has directed several shorts, The Art of Negative Thinking is his first feature film, which make’s Breien’s accomplishment all the more impressive and admirable. No line of dialogue is out of place, every tonal shift makes narrative sense, every character’s strengths and weaknesses are given full play, and the actors are given material that allows them the opportunity to show their range and their talents."The Art of Negative Thinking" isn’t without its flaws, of course. Less importantly, Breien’s reliance on American music to signal his protagonist’s aggressive behavior becomes, if not tiresome, then definitely repetitive. Geirr’s obsession with the Vietnam War or, more accurately, the depiction of the war by American filmmakers seems like Breien is playing for an international market (if so, he succeeded), but, on the plus side, Geirr’s obsession makes more sense in the context of a climax that’s played for pathos, laughter, and shock (it works). Ultimately, the worst that can be said about "The Art of Negative Thinking" is that the denouement feels too short and undernourished and that the running time is too brief. The latter is, again, a testament to Breien’s skills: we want to see what happens next to the characters we met only 80 minutes earlier, especially after everything Breien puts them through.
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originally posted: 05/08/08 17:00:00