Berlinale 2024 review: Sex (Dag Johan Haugerud)

One of the most bold and unflinching deconstructions of masculinity we have seen in years.”

Two men sit atop a roof somewhere in Oslo. They’re both married with children and live relatively normal lives, going about their daily routine as part of the middle class. However, the subject of their discussion is quite different from what we’d expect, since they have both found themselves in a position where they are questioning their sexuality. One of them has been having a series of dreams in which he is in a passionate relationship with David Bowie, while the other recently had a sexual encounter with a male client. Neither considers himself to be homosexual (in the same way that drinking a single beer apparently doesn’t make someone an alcoholic, an analogy used in the story), but they find themselves slowly questioning their identity as time goes on. Dag Johan Haugerud is nothing if not ambitious, and his most recent endeavour is a trilogy of films in which he intends to look at social norms through intricate, character-driven dramas. The first in this trilogy is Sex, in which the titular subject is explored extensively through the perspective of two ordinary men undergoing their own existential crises. Employing the miserabilist dark humour we have come to expect from contemporary Scandinavian cinema, Sex is a stoic and slightly awkward black comedy that takes a common subject and reveals the underlying flaws. It is all told through duelling vignettes that leap between the two protagonists’ perspectives as they question their sexual identity and come to terms with their own deviances and the impact these have on their lives going forward.

Haugerud is evidently not a filmmaker who intends to bury the lede with his films. From its first moments it is clear what themes he was most interested in exploring throughout Sex, the title already making it quite obvious. The theme that drives this film is gender and sexual identity, and the film quickly flourishes into one of the most bold and unflinching deconstructions of masculinity we have seen in years. The premise is extremely simple, but through adding layers of discourse surrounding how different men define their identity, entirely new elements are added to the discourse. The director takes a fascinating approach to exploring these ideas, mostly by refusing to follow a particular structure, instead combining different academic theories to create a vivid and unconventional depiction of sexuality. The conversations between the two nameless protagonists, as well as those they have with other characters (such as their wives, children, or even the occasional stranger) reveal the theory that sexuality is not defined by a singular aspect, but rather comes about as a combination of elements of which we are constituted. Haugerud posits that it is a blend of biology and psychology that determines our identity, which is particularly interesting considering how much of this film revolves around questioning what is innate and what is a result of our environment – essentially, it’s a matter of differentiating between man-made desires and primordial urges. These are the elements that go into defining our identity, and Sex proposes the idea that anyone can suddenly be placed in a position where these aspects are called into question.

However, making a film centred on two decidedly ordinary men questioning their sexuality was not the sole purpose of Sex, and Haugerud makes sure that the film surrounding these conversations is engaging and compelling. His camera carves out the story of these two men and their families, as well as capturing their surroundings, proving that this film is as much about the protagonists as it is about the city in which they live. Oslo becomes a character of its own, especially with the sweeping shots of the city that occur in between the conversational vignettes from which the film is constructed. The broad cityscapes, captured in simple but evocative cinematography, intermingle with the underlying secrets, proving that this film is attempting to capture something much deeper surrounding society and its tendency towards suppressing desires. These buildings are the homes and offices of countless people, with the broad implication being that each and every one of them has desires and urges that they keep hidden, whether to maintain the status quo or simply because they are not prepared to have such intimate discussions or even address these issues on their own. The lack of names amongst the characters adds a sense of universal ambiguity – these men and their families could represent just about any one of us, a thought that is both fascinating and quite intimidating in how it appropriates anonymity and makes it extremely resonant.

Perhaps the most appropriate way to describe Sex is as a film with the lovably nihilistic social outlook of Roy Andersson combined with the sexually charged philosophical and political complexity of Jean Genet (not to mention having many echoes of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage in the conversations between the men and their wives); not a combination many of us may have expected to find. Yet, it is also a singular vision on its own – Haugerud is a unique director with a peculiar perspective and one that he intends to explore extensively in his own way. It is an intelligent and complex film, and outside of a few brief, almost inconsequential moments in which we can feel the desire manifesting in these characters, it is a straightforward film that refuses to resort to shocking imagery or intentionally scintillating conversations to stir a reaction.  It has a strong theoretical foundation, and it manages to add academic and philosophical insights into the argument between nature and nurture without ever becoming didactic. Anchored by extraordinary performances, mainly on the part of Jan Gunnar Røise and Thorbjørn Harr as the nameless protagonists, and driven by both a genuine sense of curiosity and a desire to push boundaries in a subtle but impactful way, Haugerud constructs a fascinating character study, and lays the foundation for a larger, three-part project that is likely to be one of the most ambitious of the current decade.

Image copyright: Motlys