"Reprise," a vibrant new Norwegian film, burns with the passions of literature and youth. It's about the immediate post-college years - that exhilarating, paralyzing time in life when anything seems possible and everything's within reach, re-created here by director/co-writer Joachim Trier with love and self-knowledge.
Trier is 33, old enough to be experiencing the first pangs of nostalgia, and the movie spins forward and backward through the potential destinies of its two best friends. We meet them as they prepare to mail off their first novels to publishers together: brooding Philip (Anders Danielsen Lie), who has the talent, and goodhearted Erik (Espen Klouman Hoiner), who has to work at it.
"Reprise" launches into a brightly edited forecast of what could happen - publishing fame, affairs with beautiful neurotics, follow-up books banned by the pope - then backs up and delivers the reality. It's much less playful. After Philip's novel establishes him as a young writer to be watched, he embarks on a disastrously obsessive relationship with Kari (Viktoria Winge, bewitching and Björk-ish) that lands him in an institution and seemingly destroys his gift.
Erik's novel is brutally rejected - initially, at least - and over time he becomes the primary guardian of his friend's beleaguered spirit. The more sensible of the two (he chafes at his own conventionality), Erik worries for Philip in ways that may not be good for either of them. "Reprise" is exceptionally smart about the crushing expectations brought to the table by those who love us.
It's also exceptionally well told, with a cinematic brio that feels as though we're riffling through the pages of a much-loved novel ourselves. The ardor of the early French New Wave is recalled - a snippet of music from Godard's "Contempt" here, an echo of "Jules et Jim" there - as is a very specific literary genre of enlightened romantic realism. The omniscient narrator refers to the boys' suffering as "acute Stendhal syndrome," and the exquisite pain of being 22 and alive has its wellsprings in novels like Stendhal's "The Red and the Black" and Flaubert's "Sentimental Education."
Stendhal even makes an appearance, of sorts. The friends worship a writer named Sten Egil Dahl (Sigmund Saeverud), a '60s wunderkind and current recluse whom Erik and Philip stalk discreetly as he walks his dog. They also pogo furiously to punk songs with unprintable lyrics, stay out all night drinking with loudmouth friends, wonder about women, refuse to grow up. "Reprise" is alive with the remembered bump of a phono needle hitting old-school vinyl.
As the fortunes of Philip and Erik rise and fall, Trier quietly advances the theory that it may be impossible, after all, to live and to write about living at the same time. Lie's Philip acquires a magnetic but awful gloom; when he takes Kari to Paris to reprise a visit they made before his breakdown, it's as though he's trying to reread a book.
"Reprise" is Trier's first feature, and if it's about the pretensions of youth, it avoids pretension itself. "Don't try to be poetic," Dahl warns Erik when they finally meet, and the director takes the maxim to heart: The movie lets the characters do the agonizing. Lie makes Philip a sadly fascinating figure - a creator walking away from his talent - but Hoiner succeeds at the harder job of making a sane man dramatically compelling. In a boys' movie, Winge convincingly plays one of the few women who could possibly matter.
Only toward the end does Trier leap off the diving board and take our faith along, when the film spins forward again and foretells what may or may not be the next few chapters. Wishful thinking or further gamesmanship? A filmmaker abandoning his story or admitting that life falls between our highest expectations and worst fears? In "Reprise," everything's conditional, and imagination is the great and dangerous "if" we employ to keep us going.