Norwegian filmmaker Pal Sletaune describes “Junk Mail,” his stunningly original feature debut, as a “black comedy about impossible love, money that no one wants, cold canned spaghetti, karaoke, involuntary good deeds, rutting and the joy of being comatose.” It’s quite an accurate description, except that it doesn’t begin to describe the many joys of viewing the film. A highlight of the 1997 Cannes Film Festival’s Critics Week, “Junk Mail” impressed critics and audiences before winning the Intl. Critics Award.

Born in Norway in 1960, Sletaune studied literature and art history at the University of Oslo. He began his career as a still photographer before turning to motion pictures. Of the shorts Sletaune has directed, the best known are “The Bingo Joint” (1992), which won best European first film in the Clermont-Ferrand Intl. Short Film Festival, and the seven-minute “Eating Out” (1993), which played the international festival circuit, winning prizes in Italy and Germany.

In Sletaune’s smart comedy, Robert Skjaerstad, who bears a strong physical resemblance to Brit actor Tim Roth, stars as Roy, a bedraggled, love-starved mailman, whose curiosity and mean streak always land him in the wrong place at the wrong time. Selected out of hundreds of actors who auditioned for the part of Roy, Skjaerstad earlier appeared in Sletaune’s “Eating Out.”

Lacking the professional ethics associated with civil servants, and with no respect for the privacy of others, Roy is not above insulting his colleagues or stealing mail from innocent people. When a young woman forgets her keys in the mailbox, Roy goes up to her apartment. As soon as he steps over the threshold, his life takes a dramatic turn, placing him in the midst of murder, robbery, attempted suicide — and love.

Helmer Sletaune and his co-scripter Jonny Halberg have concocted clever twists of fate that lend their quirky comedy the precise logic of an absurdist tale. Marked by sharply observed incidents and characters, “Junk Mail” boasts an admirably unpredictable quality, with the story leaping smoothly from one hilarious episode to another.

Made on a budget of 14.7 million kroner (about $2 million), which is the current average for a Norwegian film, “Junk Mail” was backed by the Norwegian Film Institute, with additional funds from the Nordic Film & TV Fund, Norsk Film and several others. It’s indicative of the meticulous attention paid to the writing that the film was shot in only eight weeks, but it took more than a year and a half to complete the screenplay.

Sletaune and his talented cast spent a long time on improvisations until they got the dialogue to sound right. To develop a “realistic postal walk,” Skjaerstad was encouraged by his director to wear old shoes for months and to install a row of mailboxes in his apartment complex in order to develop a feel for his metier. Playing a hearing-impaired woman, actress Andrine Saether walked around for weeks with cotton balls in her ears.

Shot on location in Oslo, photographer Kjell Vassdal and production designer Kalli Juliusson (who earlier worked on Lars Von Trier’s’ “Breaking the Waves”) spent much time on developing the proper visual style, and Joachim Holbek’s twangy string score contributes immeasurably to the film’s absurdist tone.

Ultimately, what makes Sletaune a filmmaker to watch is his robust offbeat humor and penchant for endlessly scornful inventions that disregard mainstream conventions and taboos in the service of a quirky, one-of-a-kind picture. A droll, eccentric comedy is not exactly what audiences expect of Norwegian cinema, but then no one was ready for the equally irreverent work of Aki Kaurismaki and his brother Mika when they put Finnish films on the international map back in the ’80s.

“I don’t think there exists anything like a Scandinavian movement, but I’m glad that there are some filmmakers whose work appeals to those outside of Scandinavia,” says Sletaune, who is understandably thrilled that the film has sold to 32 countries to date. Currently developing a few Norwegian projects, the director says that at some point he would like to work in English. “There are very few Norwegian actors, and in ‘Junk Mail’ I worked with a lot of untrained actors,” he says, “Working in English would give me a lot more choice of actors.”

Exhibiting the kind of idiosyncratic, minimalist sensibility that prevails in the films of Aki Kaurismaki and Jim Jarmusch, Sletaune’s “Junk Mail” heralds a new wave of talented Scandinavian filmmakers.

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