Blind, the directorial debut from Norwegian screenwriter Eskil Vogt, is really four films stuffed into one. On the one hand, it’s the story of Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), a former teacher adjusting to life as a blind woman after a debilitating accident. This story – essentially literary – is an insightful and emotionally muted illustration of what it is like to live without sight. Like a realist novel, it works by stringing together telling details, until they form a story that is too immersive and nuanced to be described as plot. On the other hand, it’s also the story of Morten, Elin, and Einar (Henrik Rafaelsen, Vera Vitali, and Marius Kolbenstvedt, respectively), the three characters who populate the mental fantasy with which Ingrid, now a shut-in isolated even from her husband, breaks free from her sensory prison.
Multi-plot ensemble pieces face a tough bind: the audience has to feel that everything is of a piece, but without knowing exactly why it is of a piece. If it doesn’t work – as it didn’t in Crash and a slate of other recent examples of the genre that Tasha Robinson of the The Dissolve dubbed “everything-is-connected” movies – the result is that the characters feel like pawns of the screenwriter, or decorative motifs in some larger aesthetic design. The greatest accomplishment of Blind is that it both achieves this graceful coherence and interrogates it as a generic convention.
The connecting principle here is the web of overlapping relationships shared by the four characters: Morten is Ingrid’s husband, Einar is Morten’s old college buddy, and Elin is the timid ex-schoolteacher with whom Morten, possibly, is on the verge of an affair. (Though it’s never clear to what extent the trio actually exists or are only projections of Ingrid’s imagination – more on that later.) Each of the characters also struggles with the same problem: the inherent loneliness of modern life in a big city (here Oslo). Elin is an immigrant from Sweden; Einar is an internet porn-addict who becomes hopelessly tongue-tied around any woman not on a screen; and Morten feels as isolated by Ingrid’s blindness as she feels from him.
At first glance, Vogt threatens to slip into the kind of broad social pronouncements that made Crash feel like a filmed master’s thesis. The pronouncement here concerns technology, which Vogt treats as a rather transparent metaphor (and vice versa) for Ingrid’s blindness: both disconnect people visually from each other in a way that breeds alienation. The most obvious example is Einar’s porn habit, but there’s also Morten and Elin, who begin inching toward their tentative affair in an online chat room. To be fair, Vogt’s spin on this idea is refreshingly unexpected. Rather than merely repeat the often-heard condemnation of communication technology as the death of intimacy, the film suggests, with admirable ambivalence, that the internet might turn loneliness itself into a collective activity; the irony of Elin and Einar’s chatroom flirtations is that, aside from their mutual lonesomeness, they don’t have much in common. Technology here doesn’t so much keep people apart as allow them to almost, never quite connect, a bittersweet vision that defines the film’s tone. But the idea’s ambivalence doesn’t lessen its transparence, and it still feels as though Vogt is flirting with homily.
Where Blind swerves – and where the film redeems itself – is in the eventual revelation that the author of this homily is not Vogt, but Ingrid. As the narrative grows increasingly implausible, the activities of Elin, Einar, and Morten are revealed to be a figment of Ingrid’s vivid imagination (though whether in whole or in part is up to us to decide).
If there’s something beautiful in Ingrid’s escape into her own fantasy world, Vogt makes clear that there’s also something about it that’s deeply unhealthy. Late in the film, Morten (speaking as Ingrid’s real-life husband and not her fanciful puppet) admonishes Ingrid on the ethics of turning other people into her mental playthings. Shouldn’t everyone have the freedom to choose their own fate? If Ingrid’s manipulation of the three other characters is like that of an author – or a film director – then the determinism Morten is talking about is like plot, something Blind barely employs; an absence that can be seen as a refusal to manipulate its own characters. Vogt’s equation of plot with imperiousness is reminiscent of the short story writer Grace Paley, who claimed she hated plot because “it takes all hope away,” when “everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”
It’s not a coincidence that the kind of overdetermined plotting Paley is alluding to crops up in the “everything-is-connected” genre to which Blind belongs. It’s this genre that most easily converts into the sort of soapbox that screenwriters (Paul Haggis’s screenplay for Crash being a prime example) are often tempted to employ. Given this generic tendency, it is all the more remarkable that Vogt has managed to make a movie so ambiguous, compassionate, and willing to confront suffering without easy answers.