In 1927 Bertrand Russell delivered a talk entitled “Why I am not a Christian”. In this talk he rejected the logic of the arguments for the existence of God before moving on to issues such as Jesus’ moral character and whether or not he actually existed in the first place. In the 80 or so years since Russell gave that talk, the question of whether or not to be a Christian has come more and more to resemble the question of whether or not it is rational to believe in God. This focus distracts from the fact, acknowledged by Russell, that even if the proof of God’s existence were overwhelming, there would still be good reason for refusing to consider oneself a Christian. For example, one can question the morality of Jesus’ teachings, the value of his various churches and whether ‘worship’ is really the kind of activity that civilised human beings should be engaged in at the beginning of the twenty first century. One of the reasons why I am not a Christian is that heaven does not sound like the kind of place I would want to spend eternity. Clearly, this is a thought that has also occurred to Jens Lien, the director of Den Brysomme Mannen, (2006) known outside of Norway as The Bothersome Man.
The film opens with Andreas (Trond Fausa Aurvaag) standing on a subway platform looking unhappy. All he can hear is the sound of sucking and slurping coming from two young people snogging each others’ faces off further down the platform. Unable to take any more, he jumps off the platform and awakes on a bus in the middle of nowhere. He exits the bus and is welcomed by a little man who drives him into town to his new apartment. He also has a new job as an accountant in a very nice office and before long he is moving in with a beautiful woman. However, all is not well.
No matter how much alcohol Andreas knocks back, he cannot get drunk, Food tastes bland, sex is never quite as good as it should be and his girlfriend only ever wants to talk about doing up the house. Work is not much better as despite being very polite and accommodating, his work-mates are dull. At one point Andreas sees them laughing and goes over to them only to join in with the joke only to discover that they are laughing about picking out a new sofa. Unhappy and frustrated, Andreas starts an illicit affair with a woman from work and decides to throw his lot in with her only to discover that girlfriend number 2 (Birgitte Larsen) seems just as aloof and uninterested as girlfriend number 1 (Petronella Barker) who greets the news that he might be moving out with complete indifference.
For Andreas the afterlife is a place without fear, without poverty, without unhappiness but also without any of the positive extremes that off-set those negatives; there is no great passion, no great food, no joy, no triumph… just a tidy and pleasant blandness. Andreas cannot even escape from this world as he did the last as when he tries to throw himself under a train (accompanied by face-sucking noises from the same couple) he does not die. Eventually, he finds traces of a gap to the last world and sets about trying to enlarge the gap in order to escape from this bland afterlife into the world he was, only recently, desperate to escape. When his activities are discovered he is not punished, the administrators of the city are only slightly hurt that he would want to leave and organise for him to pass on to another place.
The Bothersome Man touches on much of the same territory as the opening act of David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999). Andreas’ afterlife is very similar to the life of Fight Club’s Jack… it is a life of bland emptiness where the consumerist drive for a ‘perfect lifestyle’ has replaced all other meanings that life might once have had.
“In the world I see — you’re stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You will wear leather clothes that last you the rest of your life. You will climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. You will see tiny figures pounding corn and laying-strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of the ruins of a superhighway.”
Both films follow characters who are profoundly existentially alienated from the cultures that surround them. Fight Club’s Jack expresses that alienation by manufacturing a secondary personality that engineers his exit from society and his rebirth as a violent marginal before attempting to bring down civilisation through acts of terrorism. By contrast, Andreas’ discontent is much more tepid, for while Fight Club presents the consumerist lifestyle as inherently absurd and distasteful, The Bothersome Man presents it as being well… not for everyone.
The world of The Bothersome Man is the kind of afterlife you might get from a religion committed to complete moral relativism. There are no rewards, no punishments, no ghostly houris, no plentiful hunting grounds and no Civitate Dei contra Paganos. It is a world stripped of morality, principle and politics; all that exists are the aesthetic principles embodied by Ikea and the lifestyle sections of the Sunday papers. It is a world where people live perfectly happy lives free of poverty, misery or death. It is a world of endless dinner parties and weekends spent decorating. However, as insipid and dysfunctional as this world might be, most of its inhabitants cling to it desperately simply because there is nothing else on offer. Indeed, the beige afterlife of The Bothersome Man is a critique not just of contemporary tastes but also of our political perspective. While previous generations feared war and famine but dreamt of a shining future and a better world, we willingly sacrifice our liberties in the hope of preserving the status quo. Possibly with a slightly bigger home. Or a blonder girlfriend.
While the film is disdainful of the Ikean Paradise it depicts, it is also critical of Andreas himself. Neither a rebel nor a visionary, Andreas is every inch the 21st Century malcontent. He knows almost from the very start that things are not quite right but instead of trying to change the world he lets these feelings of discontent rot until his raging sense of entitlement pushes him to throw himself under a train. What is worse, when Andreas does finally find a way back to the real world, the real world that Lien presents to us is just as stylised and just as artificial as anything in an Ikea catalogue. Even when in paradise, 21st Century man dreams of the mundane.
The Bothersome Man is a neatly paced, well shot and occasionally very funny film. Aurvaag’s central performance is full of pathos and wit in its dead-pan timing and increasingly frustrated sense of sadness. Indeed, the only time the film sets a foot wrong is in its ending whose increasingly fantastical imagery and manic imagery starts to resemble Being John Malkovic (1999) with the city on the hill resembling the kind of kitchen you might find in Jeunet’s Amelie (2001). Mercifully, this manic activity is diffused by the film’s ending, a long scene in which Andreas travels to yet another world and finds it to be a pale snow-blown wilderness.
A pleasingly whimsical black comedy, The Bothersome Man does a good job of engaging with Western society’s loss of utopian vision. Most people, the film argues, have a depressingly bland idea of heaven and while some of us might squeal our discontent to the four winds, it is by no means clear that our imaginations are in any way superior.