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Toronto Film Review: ‘The Giant’

A deformed autistic man tries to win a pétanque championship while dreaming of being a powerful titan in Johannes Nyholm’s gawky debut.

the giant tiff
Courtesy of TIFF

“The Giant” is a curiosity with an oddity at its center — a severely autistic and deformed Swedish man with one eye, a gnarly mouth, and no capacity for coherent speech. Just as its protagonist is hampered by tremendous physical limitations, so is Johannes Nyholm’s feature debut undercut by an uneasy blend of docu-drama realism and “Lord of the Rings”-style fantasy, both of which coexist side-by-side as its lonely soul strives to win a pétanque championship (in order to earn his mother’s love) while daydreaming about walking the Earth as a titan. While unique, this lumbering crossbreed never truly gains melodramatic traction, and beyond festival bookings in Toronto and San Sebastian, seems unlikely to get very far outside its homeland.

Rikard (Christian Andrén) resembles Joseph “The Elephant Man” Merrick by way of “Mask’s” Rocky Dennis: His hair is long and stringy except for the bald spot atop his cranium; his head has swollen around his face, obliterating his right eye and shrinking his mouth (out of which emanates only garbled gibberish); and his uneven appendages make his body appear trapped between childhood and adulthood. The full extent of this horrific condition is revealed early on, when Rikard is hospitalized — and gawked at by a doctor and his medical students — after being hit on the head with an iron ball (known as a “boule”) while joining his club team for practice matches of pétanque, a game (akin to bocce ball) in which one tries to toss larger globes as close as possible to a smaller red “jack.”

Pétanque is Rikard’s life, but his injury puts his position on his team in jeopardy, much to the disgust of friend Roland (Johan Kylén), who also works at the facility where Rikard lives alongside patients with Down syndrome and other debilitating disorders — all of whom, unlike Rikard (who’s embodied by actor Andrén in enormous latex make-up), are played by non-professionals. That marriage of the artificial and the authentic lends “The Giant” a queasy dissonance that extends to its aesthetics. Nyholm employs grating faux-verité handheld cinematography for Rikard’s day-to-day activities: playing pétanque with Roland, practicing the game in his tiny room, and suffering indignities at the hands of drunken bullies. Yet those shaky visuals are interrupted by gaudy, over-colorized sub-Peter Jackson panoramas of mountains and valleys seen through an iris-shot first-person POV when Rikard, struggling to cope with his circumstances, retreats into reveries in which he’s a towering giant traversing the rural land, his footsteps resounding with thunderous force.

These expressionistic sequences are designed to suggest Rikard’s desire for power and freedom (which he can’t even articulate, much less attain), but their real effect is to render his interior life obvious and simplistic, even as the action proper depicts him as a closed-off individual without much in the way of a personality. The result is that “The Giant” feels at once literal-minded and overly thin. As when, on his 13th birthday, Rikard journeys to see his mother (Anna Bjelkerud), who’s wasting away in a pigsty apartment with her pet parrot, the director’s attempts at poignancy are sabotaged by the sketchiness of his characters, who feel more like half-formed ideas than fully realized figures.

No doubt Rikard is meant to come across as something less than whole, and Andrén’s gimmick-free performance evokes at least a hint of the mysteries lurking beneath his inarticulate exterior. Björn Olsson’s orchestral score, meanwhile, often captures Rikard’s yearning for escape and autonomy, as during a bike ride along a highway that finds him accompanied by seagulls (a constant, heavy-handed symbolic presence). However, a climactic sports showdown against cartoonishly evil adversaries leans far too heavily on dramatic clichés that don’t synthesize with the rest of the all-over-the-place film, which is ultimately only compelling during those rare occasions (an outdoor cigarette smoke break at night; far-off looks during a birthday party) that embrace its subject’s unfathomable headspace.

Toronto Film Review: ‘The Giant’

Reviewed at Magno Screening Room, New York, Aug. 31, 2016. (In Toronto Film Festival — Discovery; San Sebastian Film Festival.) Running time: <strong>90 MIN.</strong> (Original title: “Jätten”)

  • Production: (Sweden/Denmark) A TriArt release of a Garagefilm Intl., Beo Film production. (International sales: Indie Sales Company, Paris.) Producers: Maria Dahlin, Morten Kjems Hytten Juhl. Executive producers: Rebecka Lafrenz, Mimmi Spång, Peter Hyldahl.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Johannes Nyholm. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Johan Lundborg. Editors: Morten Hojbjerg, Johannes Nyholm.
  • With: Christian Andrén, Johan Kylén, Anna Bjelkerud, Linda Faith. (Swedish dialogue)
  • Music By: