Abigail Sebaly on Jesper Just
Many of Danish artist Jesper Just’s short films open with conventional scenes: men sit in a dim nightclub, a car traverses slowly through an empty parking garage, a man walks through a field of wheat. But the narratives that we might expect to unfold from these images never materialize. Instead, Just creates sequences that are both transfixing and unexpected. For example, the men in the nightclub break into a harmonized version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” and the driver of the car in the parking garage sheds silent tears as he stares ahead. Although it may catch us off guard, the ambiguity of these situations is an intentional part of Just’s design. We are meant to feel uncertain about whether the actors’ tears signify joy or sadness, or whether a romp on the ground is motivated by lust or anger. Just creates these open-ended situations to convey the messiness of real life, where our everyday actions can be motivated by conflicting impulses and our emotions can have numerous interpretations. Because there are no clear plots to rely on, we are also drawn to other non-verbal aspects of the films, such as the location and the scenery. These are details that we might otherwise take for granted if we were following a predictable Hollywood-style formula.
When you watch one of Just’s films, the music is not merely a bland wallpaper to support the action. Instead, in place of dialogue, music becomes a way for the actors to communicate with each other. This communication can happen through formal lyrics from well-known artists like Roy Orbison, or merely through sounds, like whistling. When the actors sing or vocalize, they complicate the code that we as viewers are trying to decipher. What message are the whistles and the song lyrics trying to convey? Rather than being repelled, this mystery draws us in. Just also uses sound scores to build particular moods, much as a Hollywood film would. But again, the sounds are not always definitive indicators of the scenes that they accompany. For instance, an eerie and menacing score does not necessarily portend that something bad will happen.
Just’s films also often use male actors, portrayed in vulnerable positions. For example, in Bliss and Heaven (2004), the butch basso-voiced truck driver character breaks out a blonde wig to belt an Olivia Newton-John song about unrequited love. Just uses his films to confound stereotypes of masculinity.
Just’s work is inviting to watch, but the experience is also more rigorous on viewers. The work unmoors us from our expectations of both film and human behavior.