The late British art critic Kenneth Clark once wrote that to be a great artist meant carrying through on a singular idea. In a sense, this is the central dilemma at the heart of Gritt, a brainy, emotionally enthralling drama by the Norwegian director Itonje Soimer Guttormsen.

Gritt’s title character, a performance artist, searches for her first artistic breakthrough. And yet she’s her own greatest roadblock. Without stable support or network, Gritt flounders repeatedly, from being denied funding for lack of experience to being shut out from adequate rehearsal space. Guttormsen’s film is thus a portrait of a bristling, incessantly seeking intellect that steadily expands into a trenchant observation of what it’s like to crave a modicum of recognition in a milieu relentlessly driven by the notion of sheer staggering genius.

In the film’s opening scene, Gritt is literally in the shadows. She’s in the Big Apple, working as a chaperone to an actress with Down’s Syndrome, Marte (Marte Wexelsen Goksøyr). The subtle yet persistent tension between how Marte sees herself – as a perspicacious performer recognised not for her talent but only for her disability – versus how Gritt sees her (sympathetically, but also as riding the diversity ticket) makes for the film’s overriding arch. After Marte and Gritt return to Oslo, they reunite on reversed terms, with Gritt being helpless and Marte providing some stability. But tellingly, Gritt, in her desperate insularity, doesn’t recognise this reversal – or their affinity as driven women artists.

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Birgitte Larsen as Gritt

Rivetingly, nail-bitingly played by Birgitte Larsen, Gritt is subdued yet flinty. Rather than present Gritt as earnestly likeable, Guttormsen pulls no punches on her envy of other artists. In fact, Gritt’s vulnerability and neediness enthral despite her hang-ups. There’s a glory in writing and directing a female character with such stubborn abandon, to the point of abjection, even a brink of madness.

The latter never devolves into a ‘Van Gogh’s ear’ generality. Gritt is not a fuming mad woman – though she will eventually call herself a witch, as a result of her keen interest in rituals. But first she hires herself out as a janitor-cum-coffee-fetcher at the renowned (actual) theatre company, Theater of Cruelty, guided by the director and actor Lars Øyno (playing himself). Gritt’s veneration of Lars borders on idolatry, but her desire to steal some of his creative flame causes her to overstep boundaries. She falls victim to greater forces conspiring against her, or to her own wilful design – that is for viewers to decide.

While the tightly-wound spectacle of Gritt borrows its ethos from Dogma, it also comes sublimely close to Agnès Varda’s epic tale of feminist desultory wandering Vagabond. Having failed to launch herself as a director – after briefly working on a docu-experience featuring refugees – Gritt ends up living a hermit’s life. In one striking scene, she smears her menstrual blood on her doorpost.

Her abandon of modesty and cleanliness echoes the self-willed abjection of Varda’s film. Gritt’s closing scene, with Gritt emerging from her woodsy confinement to hitchhike, is a direct evocation of Vagabond’s exhilaration (the sheer wonderment of the open road) and peril. In both cases, freedom, artistic or existential, carries enormous risks when pursued with such fearsome determination.

Guttormsen’s episodic, frenetic directorial approach – with four co-cinematographers led by Patrik Säfström, and with three editors – captures perfectly Gritt’s angst. With the camera tight in key scenes, Larsen’s wan figure and delicately chiseled face fill the frame, conveying the immensity of her desire, but also the danger of it blotting out the world. It blots out Marte, as a possible ally, the refugees whose experience Gritt dramatises, plus the dispassionately altruistic Lars – perhaps even Gritt herself.

In the end, the film’s hurtling energy will be recognisable to anyone who’s had a brush with creative work: there’s the gnawing fear that Gritt may just collapse under the weight of disillusionment, set off by the sheer resilience it takes to pull through it at all.

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