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Armand – A new look at bullying at school

A film by Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel

With: Renate Reinsve, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Øystein Røger, Loke Nikolaisen, Vera Veljović-Jovanović, Endre Hellestveit, Thea Lambrechts Vaulen

Armand, a 6-year-old boy, is accused of crossing boundaries against his best friend at elementary school. While no one knows what actually happened between the two boys, the incident triggers a series of events, forcing parents and school staff into a captivating battle of redemption where madness, desire and obsession arise.

Armand by Norwegian director Halfdan Olav Ullmann Tøndel, winner of the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 2024, is a jewel of complexity set in the confines of a school compound. Young Armand is accused of sexually assaulting one of his classmates, and the case must be reported if it is not resolved amicably. The meeting organized by the school, bringing together the parents of the two students concerned and the educational team, turns into a waking nightmare, revealing the failings of all concerned, but especially those of the parents.

Indeed, the chiselled script shows how difficult it is to bring out the truth of a situation in a group of people who know each other, so much so, even then, that it must raise layers of interpretations based on clusters of convictions themselves founded on interpretations of real or imaginary facts in order to emerge. This is what is revealed by the ghostly presence of Armand, who never appears on screen except asleep at home at the very end of the film, and who is only a name, the name of sin, the name that crystallizes the fantasies and individual histories of the adults in the family and educational community.

In terms of staging, a play on shot values and angles hypnotizes, either through its proximity to the characters, often filmed in close-ups or chest shots, or through a distancing that always keeps the representation of the bodies in tension. The staging of light and space lends an almost metaphysical dimension to the stereotypical school architecture. What’s more, while films about schools are traditionally fairly devoid of sensuality, sexuality takes center stage here, through the relationships between children who we first learn are friends, then cousins, and that their parents belong to the same family. The point of view shifts to a close-up of these families, and in so doing becomes a reflection on sexual attraction within the clan. In fact, the body of Elisabeth (the excellent Renate Reinsve, a regular in Joachim Trier‘s cinema, having won awards for Julie in 12 Chapters), who plays Armand’s widowed mother and professional actress, is filmed against the skin, making her presence carnal and haunting.

Through this school affair, another, more personal message emerges, an address to an actress-mother of infinite seductiveness and fragility. Armand focuses particularly on the portrait of Elisabeth, Armand’s mother, who is the real protagonist. The camera almost never lets go of her, making her the highlight of the show and, through her, questioning the origin of the spectacular: more or less masked sexual exhibition. This character can also be seen as a reference to the director’s personal history, as he is the grandson of Ingmar Bergman’s iconic actress Liv Ullman (Persona, The Hour of the Wolf, The Shame, A Passion, Cries and Whispers, Face to Face, The Serpent’s Egg, Autumn Sonata) and son of novelist Linn Ullman.

The confrontation between this unusual mother and Jon’s angry mother, played by Ellen Dorrit Petersen (another brilliant Joachim Trier performer), not only alludes to the many female face-offs in Ingmar Bergman‘s cinema, but also illustrates the opposition of systems of norms, the opposition of individual and family situations, brought together by a sexual rivalry that crystallizes in the conflicts between children, as if the family unconscious were migrating, haunting some to keep the peace of others, another Bergmanian theme.

Another original aspect of the staging consists in symbolizing or displacing the expression of emotions, creating unexpected effects of meaning. Elisabeth bursts into irrepressible, immense, tragic laughter at the absurdity of the situation, which stuns the audience, or she improvises choreographies that are almost musical comedy moments, to keep from shattering in the face of the unspeakable pain that overwhelms her. These theatrical moments are moving, transgressive, Dionysian, Bergmanian.

Through the fantasies of which Armand is the name, Armand (the film) is ultimately about the ghosts that haunt our subconscious and the power of the imaginary in matters of morality. It questions the projective aspect of denunciations, the role of the victim or scapegoat, and the fallibility of human justice. Above all, it shows how family tragedies are played out in the public space of the school, or resonate in the “deviances” of children, at a time when the school is riddled with serious questions.

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