REVIEW: Jätten (The Giant)
– By M Jones
No, this is not a horror film. In fact, this story is so far from being a horror film that it stands on the opposite shore, waving with innocent friendliness at the collection of miserable, blood soaked monsters that pace around it. Kind and gentle, Jatten–Giant–while filled with fascinating magic realism that takes significant influence from the fairy tale realms of Norse mythology, is a story about understanding and the poignancy of the love that comes with it.
The protagonist of Giant is a man named Rikard who was born with a fictional condition that resembles Proteus syndrome, the affliction that the infamous Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, suffered from. Severely deformed, he nevertheless is a welcome addition to his small community, and is a passionate petanque competitor, a rather obscure sport that is a cross between lawn bowling and curling. When he is injured on the court, he is summarily banned from competing in the national finals over concerns for his own safety, a decision which devastates Rikard. His best friend, Roland, unable to tolerate Rikard being ousted like this, takes up Rikard’s cause and what results is a Karate Kid styled underdog series of training sessions that are both hilarious and sweet.
To call this an against the odds sports movie would be taking too shallow a look Rikard’s challenges and the people who are around him. There are no real enemies here, people genuinely care about and love Rikard, his life within the group home where he lives with other developmentally challenged people and their caregivers an injection of stark realism that contrasts greatly with the story’s fantastical elements. Director Johannes Nyholm clearly has a deep respect for both the homes and the people who live within them, never shying away from giving the viewer insights into Rikard’s daily life. There is a sense that Rikard is an Everyman for those whose lives are not in sync with the polished perfection of the world outside of their experience, and he is a stark reminder that regardless of disability, we are all people with dreams and hopes and personal dramas, inherently human and requiring patience.
Rikard’s mother suffers from severe depression and possibly schizophrenia, resulting in him going into care at a young age. His attempts to connect with her is another hurdle he is determined to overcome. It’s a poignant reminder that not all disabilities are physical in nature, her mental illness is quite severe, its isolating grip on his mother heartbreaking to watch. She still finds her moments of happiness, and her wall, covered in articles of her son’s success in petanque and the childhood song of trolls she sings as she plays her accordion is paired up with magical imagery of a brilliant, colourful hillside, evoking a sense of joy in the presence of the giant with her. Despite the despair that is her mind, there is a spark trying to ignite and reach out to her son.
Make sure you have ample tissues ready. Rikard’s journey is both uplifting and frustrating. Jatten does have dark moments of prejudice and ugliness, not overplayed but enough to give you a sense that the ignorant are empty of soul and beyond redemption. It’s a reflection of disrespect for anyone else, including the petanque club owners who have to contend with a group of wealthy non-players who treat the sport and the facility like a joke and leave it in shambles. But there’s also a sense of overblown importance on things that truly don’t matter, the nature of competition turned on its head as the obscure championship game of petanque is forced to contend with the far more popular beach volleyball championship playing alongside it. There is ample humour in this film (I loved how they had to keep kicking the beach balls off the petanque court and the ensuing arguments) and if anyone has participated in a sports league of any variety, the obsessive rule follower and the lazier players are all elements one can relate to.
The ending left me shattered, quite frankly, both hopeful and happy, knowing that Rikard had achieved his goal, though it was not the one that was being fought for on the petanque court. Jatten is a beautiful reminder that goals are mutable, and can be changed to suit oneself. They are personal and meant to challenge ourselves, but not overcome us. It’s interesting to note that petanque was invented by a cafe owner who had a friend who suffered from arthritis and thus couldn’t run and throw the ball. Petanque was born out of accommodating another person’s needs so they could also participate in play. There is a vast metaphor in this, in the kindness that is true sportsmanship and the bigness it takes to ensure everyone can participate. By allowing him his opportunity, Rikard became a giant. In turn, he makes giants of us all.