Mousse, Directed by John Hellberg
It’s the day of the biggest horse race in Europe, and before heading for the race track everyone in this quiet corner of a Swedish city is at Washington’s Tobacco, where they pick the horses they want to win and make their bets in the hope of winning big. Maggan has made her betting decisions just in time for the first race, but she is short just 13 crowns to finalise her bet. ‘You know the rules’, says Washington from behind the counter when she asks for a small loan from the shop. ‘You’re my best customer, but there’s nothing I can do about it’.
‘Please, Washington. Can you make an exception just this once?’ They’ve known each other for years, after all. But Washington just turns his head, takes a drag from his hookah, and returns to his television set behind the counter. Enter the title character, Mousse. He seems friendly at first but soon decides that he wants what’s inside the cash register. Maggan and Washington end up tied to chairs, facing apart from one another, but not before Washington manages to silently press a button hidden under his sales counter, alerting the police of the robbery.
An ancient loudspeaker in the cafeteria of the police department announces that there is a robbery taking place at Washington’s Tobacco. ‘Life sucks’, says one policeman as he gets up with his colleagues, dumps his food into the garbage, and skips lunch to head to the scene of the crime.
With the exception of a negotiating specialist in a suit, all the police officers that show up to Washington’s Tobacco seem to be close to retirement. They lumber and struggle to get out of their car seats. Finally, they stand poised with a semicircle of police cars, guns pointed at the silent shop. After fiddling with the loudspeaker and finally figuring out how to use it, the police captain introduces himself to the burglar inside: ‘Um… this is Captain Törner speaking. I want you to see me as your friend for the next few hours. Now tell me, calmly, your requirements.’ Inside the shop, even though Washington and Maggan are tied down and Maggan continues to haggle Washington for the 13 crowns she needs, Washington nonchalantly translates the captain’s message to Mousse, who is French and does not understand the captain’s Swedish.
Mousse opens the door to the shop to shout back at the police, in French, ‘I’m not your friend! I’m nobody’s friend’.
Mousse makes extravagant demands of the cops outside and threatens to hurt his two hostages if he doesn’t get what he wants. His list of demands includes two vintage cars at the ready, an unobstructed path to the airport lined on both sides of the street with people waving French flags, and a DC-3, ready to take off at the airport, awaiting him and his friend Lucien — whom he also demands be sprung from jail to accompany him on his escape.
The film is faithful to Nordic dry humour. The plot can be ridiculous at times, but the comedy originates from the characters’ ridiculous responses to the situations that they find themselves in. The film constantly juxtaposes the seriousness of the burglary and hostage situation with the quotidian banality of the everyday. The tone and mood of the film switch back and forth between the jocular and the serious.
Maggan and Washington, for example, are totally relaxed in their roles as hostages in a standoff between Mousse and the Swedish police force outside. Their eyes are perpetually glued to the television showing the horse races. Maggan is thrilled that, over and over, her favoured horses win, and despite being restrained by ropes, Maggan and Washington cheer and laugh at her good fortune. Washington unconcernedly translates the responses of the police for Mousse throughout, as if the burglary were an afterthought to the primary drama of the horse race and the excitement of picking the right winner. Even when Mousse, gesticulating with his handgun, tells the two of them to be quiet, they quickly return to the television as before, cheering and laughing.
The reactions of the police are similarly nonchalant. When informed over the loudspeaker at lunch of the robbery, the policemen leave their plates only reluctantly, and when they actually arrive at the scene of the crime, they lumber out of their car seats into position. They’re tired and bored, and neither Mousse’s robbery nor his taking of hostages does anything to change that. (They’re not incompetent, however. They are able to decipher Mousse’s demands in French and meet them all within a few hours, after all.) ‘This is going to take the whole shift’, the captain says when it becomes clear that the only thing to do while the demands are being met is to wait (for the cars to arrive, for the airplane to be readied). The facts of the situation are less significant than the annoying fact that resolving the hostage situation is going to take all day. ‘What do you suggest we do while we wait?’ the captain asks Mousse from the loudspeaker.
‘I don’t give a damn!’ says Mousse. Then, after a thoughtful pause, ‘Swap cop jokes!’
Another pause. The captain motions for the police to lower their weapons. ‘Anyone here know any… good jokes?’ he asks. The camera shows bored faces. A girl bicycles past the scene on the otherwise deserted street, apparently without noticing the standoff at Washington’s Tobacco.
The lengthy exchange of jokes by the cops (some good, some not so good) emphasises the distinction between the seriousness of the situation and the lighthearted, casual way that the characters participate in it. They tell the jokes into the loudspeaker so that everyone can hear, including the hostages inside the shop. The tied-up Washington manages to stop himself laughing long enough to translate each joke for Mousse. The hostage situation is serious, but not so serious that life does not continue as before: Maggan continues to obsess over her races, Washington refuses to loan her the 13 crowns that she needs to make her bets count, the two hostages cheer the horses on television, people bicycle past the quiet street, and everyone laughs at cop jokes while they wait for a resolution to the hostage crisis. The characters are pitted against each other by their roles in the drama — burglar, hostage, cop — but not to the extent that they can’t share laughs, too. And when everything falls apart in the end, the drama reveals the ridiculousness of the whole affair. It’s comedy of the absurd, and nobody is taking this day too seriously.
The cinematography and music parallel the stark contrasts between the jocular and the serious in the story. The camera’s variable perspective shoots slowly for dramatic scenes but cuts rapidly between closeups of laughing faces — and this dynamic switches, too, so that slow shots and wide views come also to represent the boredom of the police and the ordinary silence of the street outside. When the mood changes rapidly, so does the music: from upbeat and playful to funereal.
Mousse tells a strange story, and its shifts in tone can be shocking. But the comedic presentation is professional, and the dry humour is spot on. ■
Runtime: 40 minutes
Genre: Comedy, Dramatic Short
Language: Swedish, French
Find out more
Find out more about this film and its director on the pages for Mousse and John Hellberg in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) as well as the film’s page on Facebook and the film’s website. Mousse has screened internationally, including at the Short Film Corner of the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, and has received more than 46 international awards. The film’s writer and director is the Swedish filmmaker John Hellberg. His short film Galetten won the grand jury prize at the Platforma Film Festival in Athens and the Aprile Award at the Milano Film Festival in 2009.
A trailer for Mousse can be viewed at the film’s website.
This film was selected for the 2016 Atlas Awards Official Selection.
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: Stepháne Bertola as Mousse in ‘Mousse’, directed by John Hellberg. Autoboys AB.