Jimmy Olsson’s latest short film seeks to question traditional notions about messy break-ups and the manner in which our emotions can influence the art that we produce. It’s light on dialogue, but if you open yourself up to its loose, playful style, you will be rewarded with a deeply felt meditation on the pain of being unable to adequately express yourself.
Olsson chooses to focus on Philip (Philip Oros), a Swedish everyman who has recently moved into a new apartment. He is mostly concerned with contacting his girlfriend, whom he appears to love very much. In order to occupy his time, he decides to compose a song on the piano in his new apartment. At first, this song is intended to communicate his adoration of her. When she calls him and informs him that she is breaking up with him, he spirals out of control. He continues to work on the composition that he had been putting together, but it begins to take on a different tone.
It is common for artists to create films that deal with the creative process. Perhaps it is because they want to provide the audience with a window into the frustrations that they experience. As a protagonist, Philip doesn’t seem like the most likely candidate to serve as the self-insert character for a director. We tend to imagine directors as self-destructive hedonists who spend their time brooding around and gazing off into the distance with furious intent. Philip seems too mild-mannered and wholesome to go to emotional extremes. Some would see this as a failure of nerve on Olsson’s part, and an example of him failing to explore this concept to its fullest potential. This seems like an unfair view to take, because the film isn’t aiming to be a baroque melodrama. When you’re working with such delicate emotions, it would not make sense to pummel viewers with excessive histrionics.
It is true that the film takes some time to get going and Philip is so ordinary that you do wonder why he is expected to hold your interest. One has to credit him with letting the purpose of the film creep up on us. When the film really hits its stride, Philip is seen tooling around and attempting to produce a finished product that may never satisfy him. Making this point is difficult, as it prevents the film from going through the ups and downs that characterise most films. This doesn’t end on a triumphant or tragic note. It finds a way to capture Philip’s feeling of dissatisfaction – he finds somebody who will support him through this difficult period, but still chases the elusive promise of producing music that allows him to express his feelings.
Olsson’s direction never calls attention to itself and there is a spartan quality to the set decoration that will cause some to say “Oh, it’s so very Swedish.” That might be taken as a reductive statement that implies that Notes (2021) does not possess its own unique identity. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It is refreshing to see something that goes back to basics. When you don’t have the director standing between yourself and the screen, waving their arms around and letting you know that they’re brilliant, it becomes easier to simply take in what you are seeing. There is a clarity to Olsson’s vision that is perfectly suited to this sort of story, and it is pleasing to see a director moving away from the grand, operatic style of filmmaking that all directors seem to want to emulate these days.
Fans of smaller, intimate short films might find themselves enjoying a slow burn character piece like this.