Winner of the Silver Hugo for Best Cinematography
Screens at CIFF: 10/14 & 10/16 & 10/22
World premiere: 7 September, 2014, Toronto International Film Festival

1001 Grams is, first and foremost, a precious movie. It has a darling little shadowbox of a plot in which heightened characters move through immaculately quirky setpieces on their way to a conclusion that is both absurdly obvious and impossible to predict, on account of being slapped so indifferently onto the framework of a movie that had been telling a very different story to begin with. For a certain kind of viewer, not necessarily an uncommon one, it's absolutely easy to see how this is all very charming and very appealing, oddball enough to be funny, laced with enough actual pain and sorrow to avoid being frivolous. It's a good introduction to austere Northern European cinema for anybody who misses all those clumsy Wes Anderson knock-offs from the middle-'00s. As far as your present reviewer goes, the only thing that kept me from wanting to claw the skin off my face was the film's happily skewed visual humor: director Bent Hamer and cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund craft some really enjoyable compositions that are just about the drollest damn things you could imagine, frequently borrowing from the Jacques Tati playbook (a shot that apparently gives a globe a shapely pair of legs is the most obvious example, but there are more subtle ones: a sequence of people lining up to stare with ritualistic solemnity at an undistinguished but historically important chunk of metal particularly called to mind Mon oncle, though I do not know if I could explain why).

The bone-dry comedy of the imagery at least throws some real wit into the proceedings; mostly, Hamer's direction and writing are going for a far less ambitious and more generic register of genial fun times without much of any kind of weight behind it. It's a drowsy, nice movie about a woman, Marie Ernst (Ane Dahl Torp), who needs to loosen up and relax a little bit. She's a researcher at Norway's top science institute, whose ailing father (Stein Winge), an esteemed scientist himself, dies before being attending an international conference in Paris at which the country's official kilogram weight is to be recalibrated. Marie goes herself in his place,and it is apparently the most interesting thing that has happened to her in an immensely long time, which speaks very little of the interesting things in her life: the conference is a stilted, staid affair, and its staging is by far the funniest, liveliest part of the film.

In the style of many a quietly absurd Scandinavian comedy, 1001 Grams spends most of its time hanging back and watching (figuratively hanging back, that is; unlike many quietly absurd &c, it doesn't rely quite as heavily on wide shots that go on forever). There's hardly anything to the story, and most of the film consists of protracted character scenes, present mostly to showcase the limited range of Marie's life in its current, somewhat falling-apart state (she is going through a toxic break-up/divorce, and the impression one gets is that her work and caring for her father are solely responsible for filling her days). Eventually, she stumbles her way into a thoroughly generic romantic comedy scenario with the underdeveloped French scientist-gardener Pi (Laurent Stocker), and that at least give the film any kind of shape at all; the first half of the movie or more is astoundingly formless, relying entirely on the visual wit and the heavily controlled use of lighting and color to give any kind of personality to the material whatsoever.

It would certainly be possible to get behind all of this if it felt like there was anything behind it: certainly, Hamer isn't making a film about a woman without direction feel so directionless itself by sheer accident. But Marie's problems and ultimately, the direction she takes out of them aren't really compelling at all, despite all of Torp's heavy lifting to make the stretched-out arc feel genuine and spontaneous rather than preordained.

As obvious as the film's scrawny, shapeless narrative is, the worst thing by far is its horrifyingly obvious symbolism and the Hallmark card sincerity with which it mouths that symbolism as theme. By the time it becomes clear that the film will primarily be about a woman carrying a weight left to her by her dead father, I'm honestly not sure that 1001 Grams could have done anything to win back my goodwill, even despite the regular pauses for arch, wry comedy, which at least suggest the possibility that Hamer & Co. have some sense that a good dose of irony might be necessary to punctuate their film's overburdened and cloying use of obvious metaphors.

It's a crowd-pleaser kind of a film, ultimately, spelling out everything and making sure that it remains unfailingly pleasant, with enough comedy to avoid being depressing and enough sobriety to avoid feeling weightless. That's the idea, anyway. In practice, 1001 Grams is too meandering and too superficially thoughtful to be anything other than a sleepy, boring amble. And, for the record, the title's similarity to 21 Grams is no accident: honor prevents me from spoiling anything, but it does pull out that whole "weight of the soul" routine, and it does in the corniest way possible: by the time the film reached its last ten minutes, I wouldn't have thought I could be more annoyed with it, but golly, did it prove me wrong.