Category: Danish Cinema

BIFF 2014 #18: Shorts

The two brothers in 'Whale Valley'

The two brothers in ‘Whale Valley’

Portrait Without BleedBradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.

I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.

Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.

Nymphomaniac Pt 1 (Denmark-France-Germany-Belgium-Sweden-UK 2013)

Uma Thurman, Hugo Speer and Stacey Martin. Speer's character wants to leave his wife (Thurman) and move in with Jo.

Uma Thurman, Hugo Speer and Stacey Martin. Speer’s character wants to leave his wife (Thurman) and move in with Jo.

I’m not sure why I wanted to see this film. I’d previously seen  only one Lars von Trier film (Dancer in the Dark, 2000), not wanting to see the others after reading about them. However, Nymphomaniac seems to have had some decent reviews and I thought I needed to see something else of the work of the provocateur extraordinaire since he clearly attracts audiences.

The ‘plot’ of Nymphomaniac explores the sexual life of Jo from her early teenage years to her late 40s. The narrative structure uses a long flashback so the film begins with the older Jo lying bruised and battered in an alleyway in a nondescript urban setting, where she is found by Seligman, an older man who has a small apartment close by. He takes her in and she begins to tell her story – how she became a nymphomaniac.

There is a strange lack of identity in the film. This European co-production is presented in English (the Press Pack is in American English – the character is written as ‘Joe’ which I would usually think of as a male name). This in itself is not unusual for an ‘international film’ but, though filmed mainly in Germany, various aspects of the dialogue suggest that this is supposed to be the UK. It’s not clear to me if von Trier is trying to present a kind of ‘everywhere’. It would make sense to do so as otherwise we might attempt to read something from the UK context. Perhaps the film is a Danish joke about British attitudes to sex?

It’s a big ask for a young actor to be on screen for so much of the film in her debut role, but Stacey Martin does very well as the young Jo. Many reviews have picked up on the brief but powerful cameo by Uma Thurman as an angry wife and mother. The rest of the cast are also good but I don’t think that the script helps them – or the flat lighting and drab mise en scène. I wasn’t really provoked or excited by what was shown except by the scenes of Jo with her father on his hospital bed which did seem to have some emotional content. The numerous explicit sex scenes are not erotic. OK perhaps there was the occasional flicker of eroticism, but I think it is safe to assume that von Trier’s intention is not necessarily to arouse. Much of it is tedious and especially the repeated dialogue exchanges in which Jo (in her older self played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) that she is a “bad human being” and he assures her that no such thing exists. I think we get the point Lars.

I think I’ll have to see Part 2 in order to say anything sensible about how I read the film. It’s slightly worrying that it might include more of the moralising banalities from Seligman  – and the chunks of erudition about fly fishing and other pursuits. On the other hand we will get more of the mature Jo played by Gainsbourg. Does Von Trier have something profound to tell us about nymphomania/sex addiction and/or the human spirit? Watch this space.

Festen at LIFF

Patriarchal angst

Patriarchal angst

Dogme #1, directed by Thomas Vinterberg and released in Denmark in 1998 was one of the European Catalyst films screened at the Leeds International Film Festival. These films have “game changing features running through the history of world cinema that were the first in influential movements.”  There can be few examples where the opening salvo of a movement has arrived with so much aplomb and panache as Festen (The Celebration).

Three siblings, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), Hélene (Paprika Steen) and Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) arrive at an affluent hotel for the celebrations of their wealthy father’s sixtieth birthday. The dinner and party are also attended by a large number of members of the extended family, friends and colleagues. And there is also a ghost at the banquet: Christian’s dead twin sister Linda, who committed suicide. Revelations from the past during the weekend reveal this as a completely dysfunctional family, with not only vicious verbal infighting but outright violence.

The film was made following the ‘Ten Commandments’ of the Dogme Manifesto. So we have all the trademarks of this film group: hand-held camera, natural lighting and sound, no special effects and the then rare Academy film ratio. The film was shot of video, [though Vinterberg would have preferred 35mm] and this gives it a raw and tawdry look. What is most noticeable about the film is another Dogme trademark, the intensity of characterisation and action. Henning Moritzen, who plays the father, was quoted from a press conference in Sight & Sound (February 1999) “The main departure was that the camera followed him rather than him having to follow the camera. He didn’t have to worry about hitting marks and was therefore able to give a performance much closer to what he would have attempted had he been playing the corrupt old patriarch on stage.”

The film inverts one of the recent stereotypes of popular cinema and television, the dysfunctional proletarian family. Here it is the bourgeois family that is dysfunctional. Vinterberg is quoted in the Festival Catalogue: “You know fascism is very much about the anxiety of the ‘foreign’. And I guess this whole story is about that. The anxiety of something else other than what you’re used to. Something breaking the rituals, something disturbing the rituals.” He makes the point that Hélene brings with her an African-American boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah). Just about all of the guests at this party join in the singing of a racist song. And Michael, who is dominated by oedipal feelings, attacks several people including his own wife and workers at the hotel. At times the appalling older members of the family reminded me of those in Visconti’s great film The Damned (Götterdämmerung 1969).

Roy, in his review of the film, suggested that it is melodrama – which is true. He also suggests that it is a genre film – which I think not. This would breach the Dogme Vow ‘Genre movies are not acceptable.’ I think that melodrama is a mode of drama, rather like tragedy. A genre would be the family melodrama. Of course, you could place this film in that genre: the Sight & Sound article also suggested the country house drama. And we do have conventional plot mechanisms such as the revelation from the past, and the letter from the past. But the film completely subverts these as indeed it subverts the conventions of most of the contemporary cinema.

Vinterberg, along with Dogme comrade Lars von Trier, threw a bombshell into the world of film in 1998, rather along the lines of the bombshell that Christian lobs into the expensive gourmet meal at the weekend. I was as impressed at this screening as I was when the film first appeared. This is great cinema – funny, sardonic, even tragic and certainly moving. And we watched it on a good 35mm print, the format in which it was originally released.

BIFF 2013 #9: Love Is All You Need (Den/Swe/Ital/Fra/Ger, 2012)

Trine Dyrholm is Ida

Trine Dyrholm is Ida

BIFF19logoSusanne Bier’s romantic comedy drama is the best mainstream entertainment film I’ve seen in a very long time. The film is partly in English and partly in Danish so the subtitling will unfortunately put off a lot of the audience who would enjoy it if they took the plunge. Given that it features at least one of the stars of recent TV Nordic Noirs perhaps that will entice a few more converts. This isn’t art cinema, it’s a mainstream film that happens to include subtitles. If Slumdog can make it, so can this film – although it could do with a better title.

The film is completely conventional. There are still a few surprises in the way scenes play out, but this is a genre piece. The central character Ida, beautifully played by Trine Dyrholm, is a woman in her forties recovering from breast cancer and a mastectomy. Shocked to discover her husband (Kim Bodnia from The Bridge TV serial) in flagrante with someone from work, she has to get her act together to attend her daughter’s wedding in a villa in Italy owned by the groom’s father, Philip (Pierce Brosnan). She bumps into Philip, literally, in the airport car park. He’s a widower and a seemingly grumpy owner of an international fruit and veg company. You can probably make up the rest yourself. In the best traditions of the Lancashire weddings on Coronation Street, a lot is said and done or not done. So why is the film so wonderful? Partly it is the quality of the acting, partly the script (by Bier and her long-time collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen) but mostly, I think, it is the sensitivity of Susanne Bier’s direction. She can move a scene from the comic to the dramatic and back with such skill that you can’t see the join. Visually the film is stunning. OK, Sorrento is very photogenic but here the colours are pushed to the edge of being beautiful and nearly, but not quite, pushed over into kitsch. If I remember rightly, Susanne Bier studied architecture at some point and the use of the villa is fascinating with several shots, as per Jules et Jim, of the balconies in the morning as the characters come out to look at the sea. The titles of the film are enchanting. I’m not so sure about the music but that’s a minor quibble. In the international market some will be surprised to see a warm comedy from Bier after the success of a string of melodramas but one of her first big successes in Denmark was a romantic comedy (The One and Only in 1999 – which, since it stars Sidse Babett Knudsen would be worth a UK distributer digging out).

In a rather cold review Lesley Felperin in Variety says it’s a film for the middle-aged, which is probably true. But given that in the UK we have been offered a whole stream of films for older viewers, I would argue that this film is far better than the Marigold Hotels and Quartets of the last few years. Susanne Bier is one of the most skilled directors working in European cinema. Compared to Hollywood films (made in the US or the UK) this is a more intelligent and more grown-up romantic comedy drama than we are now able to get from the studios. It reminds us that many years ago we could go to see films by Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks or George Cukor – comedies with great actors and scripts with witty dialogue. What do we get now? Such films do still exist but they are confined to specialised cinema since Hollywood patronises its mainstream audience. Perhaps it needs Susanne Bier to show the studios how it’s done? I don’t really see why younger audiences shouldn’t enjoy the film and it needs to be recorded that Molly Blixt Egelind who plays Astrid, Ida’s daughter, the bride is very good and reminded me a little of Uma Thurman.