Norway’s perfect picture
The exciting new movie was filmed in the stunning Valldal Valley
IF you were a billionaire genius creating a robot with artificial intelligence, a startlingly modern hideaway in the middle of a remote wilderness wouldn’t be a bad place to carry out your project.
British writer and director Alex Garland has set his stunning new film, Ex Machina, in the wilds of Alaska, but filming took place in Norway’s Valldal Valley. Of the dramatic Norwegian location, he has said: “We knew that if we found a spectacular landscape it would provide a lot of the power of the guy. If he owns this landscape, he must be spectacular too.”
No less spectacular is the Juvet Landscape Hotel, which stands in for chief executive Nathan’s Alaskan mountain retreat, along with a neighbouring private residence. It is here that protagonist Caleb, a computer coder, wins the chance to spend a week at the home of his boss to carry out a Turing Test on the robot.
Designed by Norwegian architects Jensen and Skodvin and opened five years ago, Juvet Landscape Hotel has won plaudits for its organic simplicity, modern design and tranquil setting. It was built as part of a government initiative to develop 18 National Tourist Routes throughout Norway that would improve infrastructure and introduce modern architecture — viewpoints, rest stops and accommodation — to highlight the country’s dramatic landscapes. The project started in 1994 and is due to be completed this year.
Juvet is on the stretch from Trollstigen to Geiranger. Unlike Nathan, the hotel’s real owner, Knut Slinning, is a tall and humble Norwegian with a sharp mind and warm laugh. The hotel almost came about by accident. Slinning bought a holiday cabin here in 1986 and was introduced to the architects when they came to survey the area for the Tourist Routes project, with a modern hotel in mind. Modest about his accomplishments, Slinning insists the region is the star and encourages his guests to explore it, whatever the time of year. Standing inside Juvet’s concrete and glass cabins, you are so close to nature you can almost reach out and touch the delicate lichen clinging to the branches. The structures have been slotted into the landscape so as to feel they have crept in overnight to sit quietly, observing their surroundings.
The outdoor hot tub, glass-walled steam room and relaxation area provide a sublime setting to unwind in after a day’s exertions. Meals are eaten communally on a long table in an old red barn. The menu relies on local ingredients, and includes bread baked by a 97-year-old woman and fruit grown on the shores of the nearby Norddals fjord. “We call Juvet ‘ The Low-Shouldered Hotel’,” says Slinning with a grin, “because as soon as our guests arrive, you can see their shoulders begin to relax.”
When I wake at 9am, the sun is warming the tops of the mountains opposite the hotel, tickling the snowy peaks with a soft orange and pink light. The sun doesn’t properly hit the valley again until late February, but this doesn’t prevent me from getting out to enjoy some skitouring. The sport is favoured in Norway’s more remote corners, where thigh power is rewarded by the glory of skiing down a mountain without another person in sight. Slinning tells me they’ve taken guests skiing up on the highest peaks as late as July, in nothing but shorts and sunscreen.
However, there are ski resorts with chairlifts too, such as Stranda, 40km away, in the magnificent Sunnmore Alps, with impressive views over Storfjord below. With 17 different pistes and some of the best off-piste opportunities in Scandinavia, there is plenty to enjoy. On the way back, we stretch our cross-country skiing muscles with an energetic walk up to Grondalen waterfall, which features in the film. However, instead of the cascading deluge on screen, the water is frozen, a glistening blue-white monument in the pristine, snow-covered valley.
Fjords are a big part of Norway’s identity, the fractured coastline navigable only by an elaborate system of tunnels and ferries, so the next day we take a boat out to the country’s most photographed and dramatic inlet, Geirangerfjord. The staggeringly steep cliffs plunge fearlessly into the deep blue water, while waterfalls hurtle down in a torrent of spume. The two most famous falls are the Seven Sisters, descending fiercely on one side of the fjord, and their would-be Suitor trying in vain to grab their attention on the other.
Slinning points out a couple of impossibly positioned summer farms high on the sheer, ragged escarpment. The Norwegian Trekking Association uses some as mountain retreats. Rather more luxurious is the Union Hotel at the end of Geiranger waterfall’s walkway, where I laze in its deliciously hot pool, taking in the sensational view. When the snow finally melts in spring, the landscape offers hiking, rafting, kayaking, paddle-boarding and canyoning, climbing, zip-lining and more.
On my way back to the airport in Alesund, I take a detour into the town centre, an architectural anomaly as a result of being almost entirely destroyed in a fire in 1904. Several young architects, returning from their studies in Europe, rebuilt the town in art nouveau style, interpreted in a pared-back Scandinavian way and embellished with Viking motifs. Rather like Juvet, it was a daring addition to this landscape, previously populated with simple wooden structures. Now UNESCO-listed, it also proves how modern architecture can stand the test of time. Surely Juvet will be similarly celebrated in years to come.
Ex Machina opens in Australian cinemas on May 7. • juvet.com • visitnorway.com
Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac in a scene from
top; Juvet Landscape Hotel, Norddal, above left; and a Juvet waterfall, above