Acute Stendhal Syndrome

© Lionsgate/Miramax

It’s afternoon in Oslo. The skies are gray, the living room shadowed in shades of blue. Erik (Espen Klouman Høiner) finds Philip (Anders Danielsen Lie) in his apartment, a freshly printed sheaf of papers in hand. Erik takes the papers and begins to read. The silence between the friends is filled with their history; the rejections, the hospitals, the broken hearts. Philip, lanky with dark shorn hair next to Erik’s blonde hair and blue eyes, watches with a new, fragile silence. It’s the first time Philip’s written since a manic episode. He does his best to hide the hope in his face.

Erik and Philip are like two animals kept together in a room. There’s too much they’re not telling each other. Philip wants Erik’s honest assessment but Erik is on edge; his freshman publication had been trounced in print that morning, his girlfriend had broken things off the night before. He’s not feeling generous.

Erik tells Philip: “A lot of it is good. But we’ve always been honest with each other.”

Philip accepts Erik’s “this isn’t your best work” with averted eyes, a quick nod, a head ducked into palms.

A final insult: “But it’s cool that you’re working.” This devolves into Philip’s laughter and Erik’s quick, kind retraction. Erik compliments Philip’s use of a water metaphor about emotional distance that glides into the erotic. Philip sloughs this off. He insults himself, and the insult bounces off, onto the untouched copy of Erik’s new book, positioned next to an ashtray. Erik leaves, his own hurt feelings not abated by the slights he pushed onto Philip.

It’s a truncated scene, informed by ego and anger. They know each other too well; the transparency fuels their agitation. Both wanted something from the other that neither gave.

This is near the end, though.

The beginning: Philip and Erik’s friendship is at the center of Reprise (2006), Joachim Trier’s first film. Reprise is the Norwegian Kicking and Screaming, the male Virgin Suicides. A group of young men smokes at metal shows, sun bathes on piers. They discuss the artistic ideal at their age, less about the art than the lifestyle: Drinks and friends and sex with prostitutes, no romance to tie them down. Their friendships orbit around small totems; music and movies, drugs and lakes, an author they idolize and ape.

Philip and Erik both share literary ambitions and a love for the author Sten Egil Dahl. They want to be the kind of author that draws his reclusive attention. In the beginning, they’re in it together. They don’t know what that means.

Before everything the two friends, youthful and hopeful, simultaneously drop their manuscripts into a red mailbox. With the help of an omniscient narrator, we see the futures they imagine: immediate acceptance, poor sales, cult status, hubris-lit book bonfires, Acute Stendhal Syndrome, writer’s block, a lover’s suicide, more books, more publications.

None of which happens. Their visions splinter against reality. Philip’s book is accepted; Erik’s isn’t. Philip experiences a white-hot success. He’s a guest on talk shows. He’s the newest talented young thing. But the flame burns and flails; Erik finds Philip in his apartment, manic and scratched with blood. Erik takes Philip to the hospital and Philip’s world becomes parenthesized with pale gray walls and scheduled pills.

Six months later, the group of friends picks Philip up from the hospital. Their group is sober and silent on the drive home. Jokes fall flat between them. Their regular jocularity will return sooner than it should, but during that car ride, it stays still.

In a movie built on second chances, it becomes clear that Philip and Erik’s friendship is tainted by what happened. Their interactions are laced with that something more: Are you going to hurt me again, are you going to take away what’s already been taken? Can I trust you with yourself; can I trust you with myself?

This is the reprisal, the reset: it’s Erik’s turn to be accepted, flaunted as a talented young author on a talk show, courted by a young editor with bangs. But it’s not enough. He wants more from the experience; he wants to feel as if he’s truly on the other side of the mirror. He wants Philip’s jealousy, where his once was. He wants pillowing reviews. He wants a conversation with Sten Egil Dahl where he isn’t conflated with another bombastic writer, empty with youth.

Philip is caught up in his own story, however. He’s busy with his own reprise. The obsession that sent him careening originally, his fixation on Kari (Viktoria Winge), a doe-eyed brunette who also hated The Clash and owns The Ramones on vinyl, cycles back around. They’ve been warned off each other, but they can’t resist. Philip wants to go back to Paris, on the one year anniversary of their last trip. Their last I Love You. She can’t say no.

Erik watches this with an implicit anger. Writing is the sacred, hot core of their friendship, and within that core is a formula: how best to live the life of a writer. In not living up to their promise, they’re letting each other down. Philip can’t not go away with Kari. Erik can’t break up with the comfort of his three-years-long girlfriend, a faceless blonde named Lillian.

There is a catch, however, to this formula. Philip and Erik’s friendship is another deterrent to their writing.

After Philip’s return from the hospital, Erik tells him: “Think about it, you’ll probably write something incredible now.” Philip demurs. To Kari, Philip expresses: “I know it’s important to Erik, but I don’t want to write anymore.” With Philip in Paris with Kari, Erik says: “I have to try to write while Philip is away.” They’re a constant distraction and expectation neither can bear.

Which brings us to that afternoon, Erik nursing a bruised heart and ego, when he gets a call from Philip. Philip’s been writing again, and he wants his best friend to read his story. He wants his effort to be worthwhile.

Erik has never understood Philip’s relationship with his writing. It comes easy to Philip in a way it doesn’t to Erik. Erik’s literary star has just begun. To see his friend’s flame up again, just as he thought it had waned, terrifies him. Sure, he wants to be a good friend, but he’s selfish and young. His instinct to quash Philip’s pen is brash and hot-hearted.

He’d expected his formula to work. He’d written and rewritten. He’d experienced and loved. He’d feverishly combed through his favorite books, swallowing their sentences until they became innate in his own words. When Erik finally receives a copy of his book, he slides it onto the shelf, to see how his spine looks next to the others. He moves it until he finds a spot that makes more sense to him: alongside Sten Egil Dahl. The same author that had looked through him at his first event as a published author. But even that isn’t enough. There is always a chasm between what one imagines and what one experiences, especially if the one imagining is talented at fictional scenarios.

They can’t help drifting apart in this moment. They’re both in moments they experience as necessary and consuming. They let themselves be consumed. That they drift so easily is a testament to their friendship, although this isn’t, perhaps, how they feel it at the time. They can allow for distance, because they know that distance won’t always be there. Their friendship is instinctual, absolute. Inevitable. Whatever happens, their lives will orbit back around and they’ll be back at some cafe—in Oslo, in Paris, anywhere—sitting across the table from each other, debating philosophy and sentences.

As in their lives, Reprise doesn’t bother with an actual ending. It allows for what might happen. As in the beginning, it finishes with hypotheticals. Simplistic, romantic, but also, probably, true.

Erik leaves without saying goodbye. Philip stays. Erik finds a small apartment in Paris. He publishes a second book. This time, it’s a huge success. He’s celebrated and lauded. He returns home for a wedding, where he crosses paths with Philip and Kari. They’re happy, Philip says. He’s happy. Their conversation is kind, practiced. Normal, even after a year apart. They know each other. They understand. Their paths will cross again. The common language that exists between them won’t change.

The film ends with a question Erik puts to Philip––the last question that exists between these two imperfect friends. Even if it’s in the hypothetical, romantic universe they imagine, it’s built around the question they live their lives by.

Erik asks Philip: “Aren’t you going to write?”

And Philip responds: “No, I don’t think so.”

Only if the spirit moves him to write, as it had before, with that small story built on a water metaphor about emotional distance that glided into something erotic, something more.