It’s exciting when you discover a new filmmaker that has a truly fresh take on the world we live in, mostly because it doesn’t happen that often- the older you get, the harder it is to be impressed by anything. Which is why Swedish animator Niki Lindroth von Bahr is such a delight- her short stop-motion films are impeccably crafted and totally absurd in the finest sense of the word. Her deadpan sense of humor brings to mind several greats- from Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki to writers like Murakami and cartoonists like Jason (a fellow Scandinavian, though he’s from Norway)- but von Bahr’s sense of timing and thematic obsessions, not to mention the clean, miniature handmade sets and props she creates that mimic our own sterile modern world, are all her own.
So here are two short, but rich films for you to chew on. Tord och Tord is about two men, both named Tord. One of them happens to move in next door to the other one, and a friendship blossoms based purely on the random coincidence of their names and physical proximity. The friendship, like von Bahr’s environments, is somewhat cold and calculated- everything is done with utmost specificity- and the difference in personalities between the two Tords becomes more and more apparent as time goes on. It’s hard to call this a “comedy,” yet the absurdist humor is clear. So is the existential pondering.
Likewise, Simhall (or “Bathhouse”) makes you laugh and cringe slightly at the same time. This one centers around a bathhouse run by a very gentle and meticulous horse. By contrast, the patrons are all some combination of selfish and aloof, interested only in their own immediate needs, oblivious to any crises around them. Throwing them all into the same situation is a brilliant little move by von Bahr, forcing your own sense of civic duty to flare up when you see such blatant disregard for the public trust. Though her films are short, quiet, and understated, she somehow manages to push your buttons and elicit some pretty strong reactions out of the simplest of situations.
Von Bahr’s anthropomorphic characters allow us to reflect on a detached and surreal version of our own lives, somehow less threatening because they’re fuzzy animals and not us. If the whole thing brings to mind Wes Anderson’s own flirtations with stop-motion animation, well, yeah- it’s hard to ignore the parallels. But Anderson’s work rings hollow and needlessly precious, the result of an entitled rich kid’s mind whose only real life struggle is getting over his parents’ divorce. By contrast, Niki Lindroth von Bahr has deeper questions to wrestle with about humanity and the silly systems we organize ourselves into. Her films are more personal, more disturbing, more memorable. That she’s able to say so much with so little is an impressive feat that makes her stand out from a generation of very shallow filmmakers who often have little to say.
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