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BERLINALE 2024 Panorama

Review: Sex


- BERLINALE 2024: Dag Johan Haugerud’s new feature asks important questions about the social conditioning of male heterosexuality

Review: Sex
Thorbjørn Harr (left) and Jan Gunnar Røise in Sex

Norwegian writer-director Dag Johan Haugerud has now been making films for 25 years, working in varying lengths between shorts, mid-length, and features, but his talent in utilising discomfort around societal disruption has marked contemporary Scandinavian cinema as a whole. His films are acclaimed — some locally, others on the global festival circuit — but Sex [+see also:
interview: Dag Johan Haugerud
film profile
, premiering in the Panorama section at this year’s Berlinale, will certainly draw more of that much-needed attention to his oeuvre. 

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Poking at the heteronormativity masked as inclusion that permeates Norwegian society, Sex recalls the wittiness of early Ruben Östlund films, but the similarities stop there. When a chimney sweeper (Jan Gunnar Røise) confides in his boss that he not only slept with a man, but also joyfully recounted the experience to his wife straight away, the CEO (Thorbjørn Harr) is bemused. Remaining polite and inquisitive is a must, and while the two men are obviously close, their bond is still subjected to insurmountable pressures as to what hetero-coded masculinity is. From here onwards, Sex is very much concerned with talking, and not at all about sexual acts themselves. 

As such, the film is anything but dry. Its formal inventiveness (courtesy of Haugerund’s preferred cinematographer Cecilie Semec whose slow pans are a marvel to behold) and its clever writing come together in an understated comedy of the (hu)man condition. Both Røise and Harr, in their previous collaborations with the director, showcase an aptitude for the bitterly comedic while never flattening their searching characters. Sex walks a tightrope between surface-level empathy and deep mutual understanding not only when it comes to the two men, but also in their respective households. The worker’s wife (Siri Forberg) chips away at her husband’s idealised narrative (he almost seems to see anal penetration as salvation) by allowing herself to be increasingly anxious and openly vulnerable, in dialogues that slowly but surely reframe the dynamics of their marriage. 

On the other hand, the CEO’s wife (Birgitte Larsen) is fascinated by the recurring dreams her husband has, where he is subjected to the “male gaze” of none other than David Bowie and the to-be-looked-at-ness associated with femininity. Her frankness when admitting that she cannot fathom why he would be excited by such objectification, even in a dream world, reveals the unbridgeable gap between (strictly delineated understandings of) genders. However, Haugerud remains remarkably tactful when crafting his characters, even when observing their reactions as if under a microscope. 

One may wonder: are these two married monogamous heterosexual men momentarily exposed to queerness really ripe for change? Or will their experience of radical otherness end up a badge of honour as they carry on business as usual? While these questions are valid, a charitable reading will see a wider horizon after the credits roll: if we cannot trust men like these to discover, talk about, and process their sexuality as something always in flux, the battle is already lost. Set against the backdrop of an Oslo that seems composed only of building sites and chimneys to be swept, Sex acknowledges that all of our conventions are constantly in the process of being destroyed and reconfigured.

Sex is a Norwegian production by Motlys in co-production with ViaPlay.

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