What if the idea of Utopia was possible? Would it really become dystopia? Do we live dystopian times now? Many movies, series, cartoons and books have attempted to answer this question. We have seen it in 1984, The Stepford Wives, Metropolis, Aeon Flux, Brazil… The list is interminable. But this time, I will compare and contrast two screen works: the movie Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998, USA) and the film The Bothersome Man (Jens Lien, 2006, Norway/Iceland). Both works got my attention because the perspective is mainly told from the perspective of outsiders, who see what lies beneath the apparent utopia. But their reactions and the results of them are different in each of these works.
Both Andreas in Bothersome and the twins David and Jennifer in Pleasantville are transported to “perfectly harmonic” yet colourless towns. Andreas is surrounded by neutral and pale colours, while the siblings are surrounded by black and white. The pleasantness lack passion and emotion makes both towns feel even cartoonish. But Whereas Jennifer, and later David, are set to change the circumstances surrounding them, Andreas’ situation presents more hopeless, and he tries to escape.
The people who live in both towns are afraid of change. However, passion grows and changes people in the Hollywood version of “Pleasantville” and the way to resist change is, initially, through violence, and then, toward totalitarian rules. For a while, the violence in Pleasantville against people who have emotions and knowledge, which is expressed in colours, is stated, making Pleasantville much less disturbing than its Scandinavian counterpart. It is precisely the lack of violence (aside of the few scenes involving suicidal attempts) what makes The Bothersome Man all the more unsettling. They don’t need violence because they never allow themselves to get angry, or to show any emotion for that matter.
I don’t think there is a better example of this than the opening scene. For all the intensity of the kiss here, there is a complete lack of passion, making it perhaps, the most disturbing kissing scene in the history of cinema. I should also highlight the moment when Ingeborg, Andreas’ lover’ reacts indifferently to the fact that he left his live-in girlfriend for her, confessing that she has been seeing other men; and the apathetic smile that the man’s girlfriend in question shows when he is alarmingly covered by blood as a result of his violent, attempt of suicide.
By contrast, Pleasantville has splashes of emotion and knowledge bringing both color and new elements to town. Even the scene in which Betty Parker and Bill Johnson fall in love with each other shows all the tenderness, passion and soul that brings the colours to Pleasantville without them even kissing in a single scene. We see the characters gaining colours through that and through self-awareness. And although this change is met with resistance by some of the town’s inhabitants, there are many others accepting and embracing this change, as well as David and Jennifer’s presence. David returns to his own world not because he wants to escape, like Andreas, but, as I understood it, he wanted to applied what he learned in his own world.
Andreas meets another person, Hugo, who has discovered that colorful, soulful, flavourful passion that the “pleasantville” they inhabit is missing. Andreas decides to dig farther to escape to the place where such sweet music and aromas are coming from. We see the colours in the house where he almost arrives. But the guards of the town drag him out before he manages to escape, and, instead of being seduced by the colours or flavours of the other side of the hole, the guards seal it!
Both films end, to some extent, in uncertainty. In Bothersome, Andreas gets thrown to a frigid and snowy landscape. But, while the ending is nicer in Pleasantville, Betty, George Parker and Bill Johnson acknowledge that they are not sure about what will happen in their future.
While I find The Bothersome Man superior to Pleasantville, it was interesting to seeing both works within a short period of time and compare and contrast the fascinating takes each had to offer about the Utopia/Dystopia question.