‘Armand’ Review: An Accusation at a Primary School Results in a Drama So Convoluted It’s Claustrophobic

There’s one very good scene in “Armand,” a movie written and directed by Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel, the grandson of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. We’re inside a primary school in Norway. Elisabeth, the mother of a student, has been summoned to the school to appear before a panel of teachers. She’s informed, in dribs and drabs, that her six-year-old son, Armand (we never see him — or any other child, which is odd, since the whole film is about children), may have sexually abused one of his classmates. Since Elisabeth believes that she has a well-adjusted child, and that a six-year-old can’t be guilty of abuse in any predatory way, she fixes her interrogators with a look of skeptical contempt. And after grilling her about a series of what strike her as trivial micro transgressions, she starts to laugh. In fact, she can’t stop laughing.

Elisabeth is played by Renate Reinsve, who reached a new peak of prominence with her performance in Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World.” The laughing jag she subjects us to — it lasts about four minutes — is a bravura piece of acting. She keeps laughing, and stopping, and laughing again, as if it were busting out of her and she couldn’t control it. Watching this, I began to think that laughing, for an actor, must be even harder than crying. How can you make it look spontaneous? For minutes at a time?

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But the power of Reinsve’s performance is about where the laughter comes from. It’s bitter and almost sarcastic laughter, with an undercurrent of are-you-shitting-me? disbelief. She’s not just laughing at the idiocy of the questions she’s been asked. She’s laughing at the very idea that she lives in a society that has decided to subject behavior to this degree of control. That’s why her laughter won’t stop. The revelation — the utter horror ­— that’s driving her giggle fit keeps hitting her, at deeper and deeper levels. Reinsve, unlike the film’s director, has no famous filmmaking legacy, but what she does in this scene made me think of the great Liv Ullmann.

The rest of the film made me think that coherence — of story, theme, vision — may be a fading value.
“Armand” has an interesting premise (a parent being grilled about her son’s behavior as a vehicle for an exploration of social values). But the movie, while elegantly photographed, is mostly a shambles. It keeps throwing things at you in an oblique and random way, and it’s constructed like a puzzle with no solution. Ingmar Bergman became the 20th-century icon of egghead cinema, yet Bergman, for all the loftiness of his reach, wrote dialogue that could suck the audience in like a whirlpool. Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel, on the other hand, comes up with “conversation” so terse and elliptical that it sounds like the staccato coding of late-period David Mamet as written by someone who was multitasking.

Ullmann Tøndel doesn’t know how to follow a scene through. Time and again, he leaves us hanging, and most of what happens is flagrantly unbelievable. Why does the panel questioning Elisabeth do it in a classroom rather than an office? Given the seriousness of what may have happened, why don’t they simply tell her what the accusation is instead of dithering around it for 45 minutes? The person overseeing the panel is an inexperienced young teacher, Sunna (Thaa Lambrechts Vaulen), who’s in way over her head. But if one of the film’s essential points is that Norwegian culture has become fanatical in its caution, then why would she be put in charge? As details of the incident come to light, it emerges that Armand’s accuser, a six-year-old named Jon, claims that he was raped. But as Elisabeth points out, this seems like highly unlikely behavior — or language — for a six-year-old.

As if the situation weren’t loaded enough, Ullmann Tøndel piles on connections and layers of trauma among the characters. Elisabeth and Sarah, the mother of Jon, are sisters-in-law. (Yet we somehow aren’t told this for a long time.) Thomas, the man connecting them, was Sarah’s brother and Elisabeth’s husband; he committed suicide. (Sarah blames Elisabeth.) The fact that there is so much talk about people we never meet is frustrating. The way that photographs of several of the teachers, back when they were students at the school, are displayed in the hallway lends moments of the film a spooky but weirdly gratuitous “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” vibe. Late in the movie, there are a couple of showpiece sequences that leave dialogue aside: a dance performed by Elisabeth, and an expressionistic group body grope. Why are these scenes there? Beats me.

Ullmann Tøndel films the school with a sinister gloss that turns the hallways into a maze, and we hang in there, hoping we can figure out what’s going on. I could gas on about “Armand’s” pesky contrivances, but instead I’ll simply ask a question that critics probably don’t ask often enough: Who is this movie for? Who is going to see it? Who, outside of a film festival, is going to be eager to cut through its thicket of incoherence? Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel has some talent (he staged that laughing-jag scene), but if Ingmar Bergman were staring down from art-house heaven, I think he would say to his grandson, “Please do a rewrite.”

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