Those who felt that Scandinavian cinema had passed into retirement along with Ingmar Bergman should be startled by Insomnia. This immaculately constructed psychological thriller sets a benchmark for other Scandinavian directors to match, and is one of the most unusual and gripping films to have emerged from Europe in recent years. As a first feature film by its young director, Erik Skjoldbjærg, Insomnia was selected for the prestigious Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was hailed by critics from around the world. Starring Stellan Skarsgård (Breaking the Waves, Ronin, Good Will Hunting), the drama unfolds in the northernmost region of Norway, beyond the Arctic Circle. Here is a land where, in summer, the sun never sets.
As a detective who travels to the coastal town of Tromsø to help solve a local murder, Skarsgård’s Jonas Engström finds himself taunted by locals and climate alike. He cannot sleep as the glaucous light of the midnight sun glares through his hotel window, and he loses himself---–and his reason—in the fog-shrouded landscape. This all-pervasive mist forms when the ocean is warmer than the air above it. In the film it creates a mood of claustrophobia as well as ambiguity. Did Engström kill his partner, Vik, during a chase in some rocky wasteland? Is he really interested in the attractive receptionist at the hotel? Does he have a nasty skeleton in the closet of his past?
Skjoldbjærg had been introduced to Skarsgård through Hans Petter Moland, who had made Zero Kelvin with the Swedish star. “The moment he walked through the door in Stockholm, I knew I had found the right actor,” says Skjoldbjærg. Like Jean-Louis Trintignant in Bertolucci’s The Conformist or Marcello Mastroianni in Visconti’s adaptation of Camus’ The Stranger, Skarsgård creates a man who is outwardly assured while harboring profound insecurities within. He cannot handle any kind of intimacy, nor can he come to terms with his responsibility for the death of Vik. He sustains his identity by adhering to certain moral precepts; once he has broken one of these principles, he becomes truly dangerous...
Insomnia may be accused by some of perpetrating the same sin as its antihero Engström, for its sleek editing and allusive dialogue leave the audience unnerved and unable to distinguish between good and evil, guilt and innocence. But Skjoldbjærg should be given the benefit of the doubt. A graduate of Britain’s National Film School, he was selected on instinct by the school’s founder, Colin Young, and impressed with two gripping short films, one shot in Norway (Near Winter) and the other in London (Close to Home), where he lived for some years. Insomnia was filmed in the director’s home town of Tromsø. “So many crews had used the landscape in an epic manner,” he says, “but I had never experienced that when growing up, so I wanted to give the film a sparse, unspectacular look. We tried not to build classical compositions. Instead we wanted the eye to wander, to create a certain discomfort, almost exasperation at the impenetrability of the enigma.”
Insomnia represents European cinema at its most challenging, experimenting with form and compelling the viewer to enter its haunting world, where truth slips like an eel through the fingers of a detective riding the edge of hysteria.
Peter Cowie has written several books on Scandinavian film. His latest work, a study of Norwegian cinema, will be published in 1999.