Back when Pete Buttigieg was running to be the Democratic nominee in the U.S. presidential election there was considerable media curiosity about the man. The then-mayor of South Bend, Ind., was, it turned out, notable for being well-read and able to speak several languages, including Norwegian. Why Norwegian? Well, he wanted to read the work of Norwegian novelist Erlend Loe in the original language, he told interviewers. He was just enthralled by the writer’s work.
The new series Kamikaze (streams Crave) is based on Loe’s novel called Muleum, and it will probably introduce his work to an entirely new audience. (It is in Danish, not Norwegian, with English subtitles, and is HBO Max’s first Danish-language original, and the first series commissioned and produced in Europe.) It’s unique, bordering on indescribable in tone and meaning, and transfixing in an unsettling way.
Loe’s theme, often presented under cover of whimsy or gentle satire, is the way we cope with crisis. Sometimes these crises are self-inflicted and sometimes they come out of nowhere. The books in general are focused on characters in existential meltdown, but there’s humour too, a dose of bittersweet irony being added.
In Kamikaze, the central figure is Julie (Marie Reuther) who, when we meet her, is attempting suicide by crashing a small plane in the desert. She’s battered, bruised and bleeding, but alive. Flash back a little and we meet Julie, pre-crisis. She’s 18, a striking, stylish figure in her bourgeois milieu, interested in fashion, good-looking guys, her cool friends and accumulating more followers on Instagram. But she’s not entirely superficial; she’s loved and loving. Her family, who are sweet, good people, are away in Africa, and she’s about to throw a party. Then she gets a text message from her father: “We’re crashing. I love you. Do what you want. Dad.”
In an instant, the floors have fallen out and her life has changed. Her way of coping is a fixation on flying in planes and she becomes a self-taught expert on plane crashes, eventually knowing more than most aviation experts. Her behaviour is palpably strange. When the police first come to ask her about retrieving samples of DNA that might identify her dead parents and brother, she’s poised, beautifully dressed and offers them expensive treats. When she sees a therapist, she tells him, cryptically, “I’m waiting.”
Julie is in search of meaning after a devastating loss. She becomes self-destructive in an almost idle way, but keeps on flying to distant places, unnervingly composed. Her encounters with men are a complex mixture of fulfilment and self-loathing. Nothing makes sense to her except the idea of dying in a plane crash.
You won’t find many reviews of Kamikaze by critics in the United States and here. The eight-episode series (most are 30-minutes long) has considerable emotional power, and Marie Reuther inhabits the central role with great force, but it can make some viewers deeply uncomfortable.
It has warmth but it isn’t sentimental. It’s about grief but Julie becomes a misanthrope leading a solitary life that seems to be heading toward inevitable suicide. She isn’t, actually. Alone, well-off and with support all around her, her path toward finding meaning in her life seems like an absurdly comic fable. Julie is almost inaccessible. What’s is all about? The series says to you, “Go figure it out yourself.”
Loe’s earlier novel, with the odd title, Naïve, Super, is apparently what drew Pete Buttigieg to the novelist’s work. It’s been compared to The Catcher in the Rye, and features an adult who retreats into the enjoyment of childish things after what is a breakdown or a fit of pique. The book achieved cult status because it is, mainly, a pilgrim’s progress toward meaning and a journey that reveals most adult pieties to be ridiculous. It offers solace to those who realize that some adult responsibilities are a mere fetish, and others are ferociously real.
Kamikaze is even more unconventional. It asks why we cling to family-based identity even as it seem to celebrate family as the main focus of existence for Julie. It’s fatalistic. It moves with a dream-logic. It isn’t for everyone, but it certainly illustrates why the work of Erlend Loe has a strong grip on some readers. Here, it’s the way the story handles an existential meltdown with both empathy and scorn. Approach this curious series with caution.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.