A Few Notes on ‘Notes’ | Jimmy Olsson’s Latest Short Film
After his old place gets flooded due to a burst pipe, our main character, played by Philip Oros, is moved into a new temporary apartment surrounded by thin walls, and in a rocky long-distance relationship, he has only his keyboard to keep himself company.
When his partner eventually leaves him, Oros’ character retreats into himself with very little energy left to do anything other than wallow in his self-pity and write his most heart-breaking song yet.
Little does he know that listening in to this all is his neighbour, who may just be able to help him get through this tough time.
Staying somewhat true to Olsson’s style of naturalism, the camera work follows suit to what we’ve come to expect. The thing one might notice about it is the grain that fills the screen, assuming that this is an intentional choice, it is one that I found myself enjoying. The literal grittiness of the visuals adds to the situation we are being presented with: we’re in the same boat as our protagonist, we know this film isn’t going to be a romcom right off the bat with this one aesthetic choice, and it perfectly sets the tone.
Plus, it just looks interesting. As I said it’s the first thing you notice, it really draws you in and makes you want to keep watching, if only to see if it was intentional or just the low lighting. So many films feel the need to look clean or use cyan and orange in their lighting; this choice truly makes Notes stand out from the rest.
Another interesting aspect of the camera is the movement. There are very few, if any, tracking shots, or dolly movements with the camera actually moving. All the shots are locked off with only pans and tilts to follow the action. This minimalist approach to the movements only further adds to the feel of the film. There are no jarring handheld shots or Dutch Angles – we are seeing the action on screen as we would in real life.
Often, the camera is positioned behind an obstruction, like a door frame. This creates the illusion that we, the audience, are watching in on the characters in their world; appropriate as the story being told is so personal and intimate that it makes sense someone would need to be spying in to see this action. It also echoes the narrative: the thin walls allow our protagonist’s neighbour to listen in on his piano and his issues with his relationship. By extension, not only are we listening in where we’re not meant to, but looking in too.
If there’s one thing I can say about this film after having watched it multiple times for this review, it’s that Notes is very easy to rewatch. It could just be my general lack of intelligence or observational skills, but I found myself noticing little things and new details upon almost every revisit. The most significant of which might be how important the title is to the story.
On my first watch of the short, I thought that the film could equally be called Walls and it would be just as appropriate. One of the first pieces of information given to us is how the walls of this new apartment are very thin and let sound in and out rather easily. This to me seemed to be the basis of the whole film. Man and Neighbour play songs to each other through the walls, neighbour hears the breakup through the walls, and he hears the one final sad melody through the walls. This though isn’t all that the movie is about.
You would be forgiven to think that the notes mentioned in the title only refer to the notes being left between Man and Neighbour. This, however, completely ignores the other equally important notes present throughout the whole piece, that being the musical notes played on instruments. The only company our main character has is his instrument – he is constructing a song, not only for his girlfriend, but also for himself to keep his sanity.
These notes also highlight the theme of communication, or the lack thereof. Throughout the film, Man has a number of phone calls, with his girlfriend and with work. Aside from the breakup scene we never hear the other end of the call, we need to gauge what’s happening from only one side of the conversation. This is a move I imagine was made due to budget or time restraints, but as is often the case with filmmaking, these restraints, when handled creatively, can improve the output in the end. We’re treated to a sense of ambiguity, never quite knowing what’s happening.
This is the same with communication between the neighbours. They only ever communicate via notes (paper notes and musical notes), so we never quite know what is being discussed, but it also doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if we hear the other end of the call, or read the reads, or feel what they feel in the song, nothing changes. No matter what we know, the outcome is still the same; Man is still sent to a replacement flat, he still goes out with friends, he still works, he still breaks up with his girlfriend, the neighbour still comes through to comfort him. We aren’t important, only the parties involved are. I think this is an important part of the movie, the idea that everybody has a life outside of what they show us. Only a select few are ever let in on their true selves.
Olsson has created a fine piece of media here in Notes. It tells a story of the different ways we as people can communicate with each other; whether it be not communicating with a partner – resulting in a breakup – or through written notes to a neighbour, or even through song to anyone who will listen. The themes of the film become more and more obvious the more you watch it, with each repeat practically guaranteeing you’ll discover something new.
Notes achieves a startlingly realistic portrayal of it’s topics. A mixture of the script, camera work, and acting come together to create this tone. Being so naturalistic makes the story feel grounded in reality, you can tell that this has happened to hundreds of thousands of people previously. Olsson isn’t saying anything that hasn’t already been said before, yet this isn’t a bad thing. He takes different subjects that might seem random at first, but in the end, they are more connected to one another than one might previously have thought.
I hope it isn’t too jarring for this review to go from such a formal and clinical approach to my usual casual style of writing (side note: if you enjoyed this piece about Olsson then maybe you’ll like this too?), but I feel I must break for a bit just to say: I really liked this short. Despite being the length of your average American sitcom (apologies to the cast and crew of Notes for such an insulting comparison), the time files in. No part of this movie is unnecessary, any piece of information given to the audience will eventually come into play later. When we get told that the walls are thin, this isn’t just to show it’s a cheap apartment, it’s also foreshadowing how the neighbour will hear everything going on. When the man asks his girlfriend if she’s mad about something, this isn’t just to make it seem like a ‘real’ conversation, it’s the beginning of the end of his relationship.
Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of Olsson’s latest work, and I wholeheartedly encourage anyone reading this to check it out.
Summary This is just a really solid film, it deals with interesting themes that are rarely talked about in the same film as eloquently as is done here. This film has great teeth... that is to say, there is no filler. Every line of dialogue, every bit of mise-en-scène is exactly where and what it needs to be, you never feel like the movie is wasting your time. A must-watch for anyone who wants to impress a film student with their knowledge of foreign cinema.