Globalisation seems to be producing ‘international films’ (films made in English and in ‘universal’ genres) at a faster rate than at any time since the 1960s. This is particularly noticeable in the case of The Salvation which takes us back to the European Westerns of the 1960s-70s. I’ve racked my brains to think of a Danish national dish that would help to name this genre revival alongside ‘spaghetti’, ‘sauerkraut’, ‘tortilla’ and ‘paella’ – not to mention ‘curry’. It’s a silly game but it does point to the same seeming urge to create a Western which fuses the elegaic style of John Ford with the operatic tones of Sergio Leone. As Ed Buscombe, the doyen of UK film scholars dealing with Westerns, points out in Sight & Sound (May 2015), The Salvation is unusual in not being a ‘revisionist’ take on the genre like most of the occasional westerns of the last few years (see our recent post on The Homesman). Instead it is resolutely traditional in combining plot elements from High Noon and the style of Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) with direct nods to various other well-known Westerns. It does have the presence of ‘sticky oil’ which poisons the water supply and is seen by the villain as the potential source of wealth but Buscombe suggests that this element too was already present in a Gene Autry film from the 1930s.
This is a classy production from Zentropa and its British and South African partners. The solid cast is headed by Mads Mikkelsen, effortlessly portraying the taciturn western avenger and Eva Green as a mute femme with eloquent eyes. The supporting Brits include Jonathan Pryce and Douglas Henshall. Eric Cantona gets a couple of lines but the sole American Jeffrey Dean Morgan almost steals the show as the villain Delarue. The creative team is entirely Danish with a pedigree that goes back to the early Dogme films. Director Kristian Levring directed Dogme #4 The King is Alive (2000, set in Namibia) with co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen (who also wrote Dogme #3 Mifune (1999)). DoP Jens Schlosser had also shot The King is Alive and his knowledge of Southern Africa must have contributed to the single most striking aspect of the film’s visual style. Most of the film was shot in South Africa and as far as I can see, the two settlements portrayed in the narrative were built as sets but there was also a considerable amount of CGI needed to turn the veldt into the high plains of North America. I did feel conscious of the ‘difference’ in the image compared to the Leone films made in Spain or the US/Mexico. It was especially apparent in the night scenes and the red skies. I’d need to see the film again to try to work out what was different in the image. This distraction didn’t last long and I quickly forgot about it as the narrative progressed.
I watched the film in a virtually deserted multiplex screen on a sunny afternoon. The trade view was that despite a strong showing in Denmark, in the UK the film would face a tough struggle and that was indeed the case when the opening weekend was deemed ‘soft’ with meagre returns from a wide release on over 100 screens. The wide release might seem appropriate for a film that cost €10.2 million (source Cineuropa) but I’m not sure that the film wouldn’t have done better as an arthouse release on fewer screens – despite its solid genre basis. A couple of years ago I chose Louis Malle’s clever spoof of aspects of the spaghetti Western, Viva Maria! (1965) for an evening class public screening and was pleased by the response. I didn’t expect to attract a younger audience but the older arthouse audience generally enjoyed the film. There is still mileage in the Western but it needs careful handling. It felt like The Salvation was rather ‘thrown out’ onto screens by Warner Bros. with little promotion. It deserves a better fate and I recommend looking for it on DVD.
I was going to show the trailer but it stupidly shows most of the plot for the first part of the movie. Here’s a nice pic of Mads Mikkelsen instead:
The concept of the ‘global Western’ is discussed in Chapter 2 of The Global Film Book.
It tells you something about contemporary film culture when Amour is a major UK release by Artificial Eye, furiously promoted and garlanded with awards and The Hunt, also a Cannes prizewinner in 2012, sneaks out on a much more limited release from a smaller distributor which seems to have done little to maximise its cinema box office. It’s not easy to find The Hunt, but you should look out for it as one of the films of the year. Its Cannes prize was for Mads Mikkelsen as Best Actor and he was certainly a deserving winner. With his other stellar performance in A Royal Affair earlier this year, he is perhaps the leading European actor at the moment. Yet The Hunt is not a one man show. Everything about this film is first class. It begins with the script by Tobias Lindholm (who also writes for Borgen) based on a story by the director Thomas Vinterberg and runs through the direction of a fine ensemble cast and a remarkable performance by Annika Wedderkop (as the young child at the centre of the narrative) to the cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen and indeed all the other technical credits.
In some ways, The Hunt is related to Vinterberg’s first international feature, Festen – the first Dogme film in 1998. The Hunt isn’t a Dogme film, though some of the vitality of the hand-held camerawork is still evident. The Hunt is much more ‘composed’ and it uses landscape and mise en scène in more expressive ways. In thematic terms, however, it does resemble Festen in suggesting a dark undercurrent in Danish social life. Festen was about the machinations of a wealthy family whereas The Hunt is a melodrama about a small community. The Hunt also moves beyond the ‘realism’ of Festen to explore a community in the forest which somewhere beneath the surface suggests a link to a traditional, almost fairytale world. This is an absorbing and enthralling example of storytelling at its best.
Vinterberg has said in interviews that the title ‘The Hunt’ is ‘banal’ but it is actually very clever in its multiple references. The narrative more or less begins and ends with a hunt by the local men of a small community somewhere in a Danish forest. (Not sure about Denmark, but in the UK the old French word forêt refers to an area in which the king hunted.) When a local youth reaches a certain age he is granted a shooting licence and has the privilege of shooting the first deer of the hunt. This ancient tradition forms part of the contradiction/contrast of liberal/modern and conservative/traditional in this community.
Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is in one sense part of the traditional world as a hunter, but also both part of the modern world as a teacher who is a victim of education re-organisation. He has lost his job after the closure of the local comprehensive school and he has been transferred to the kindergarten/nursery school. (We don’t know the reason for the school closure – perhaps it is a case of falling pupil numbers, but Vinterberg is careful to show a diverse community suggesting new arrivals.) But when his innocent friendly behaviour is misunderstood by a young child, Lucas becomes the hunted – assumed by even his closest friends to be a dangerous man who must be shunned and punished. References have been made to all the well-known ‘witch hunt’ films from Frankenstein through to The Crucible. This is a rural community in which we see only four communal meeting places – the nursery school, the supermarket, the church and the country club/hunting lodge – which though it is a private house seems also to be the centre for social activity. It’s interesting that Lucas is effectively ‘barred’ or at least unwelcome in the first three but that the last is a kind of haven. We don’t hear the back story which would explain how Lucas became close friends with the owner and his family, so that Markus, Lucas’s son has a godfather in the community.
It isn’t difficult to make visual connections between the village/town in this film and that in countless other films, including many Hollywood films. The script plays with gender roles and genre elements so that Lucas is a character who is divorced from his wife (who we never see – she remains a voice at the end of a phone) with whom he tussles for custody of his teenage son. The accusation is that he has behaved inappropriately with a young girl so that his accuser becomes the older woman in charge of the nursery. Not surprisingly, the mother of the child (and the wife of his best friend) turns on him immediately. The only woman who is, at least initially, sympathetic is Nadja, a migrant worker – an ‘incomer’ to the closed community – played by the Swedish actress Alexandra Rapaport. The men of the community are pushed into macho roles and the thuggish behaviour of the male staff in the supermarket is reminiscent of the builders in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The casting of Daniel Engstrup, a very tall and beefy actor, enables Vinterberg to organise scenes that remind us of Westerns – in which the lone hero is menaced by groups of physically strong men. But Vinterberg also undercuts this by first presenting the ‘hunters’ as flabby city types reluctant to skinny dip in the local lake in an annual ritual.
Mikkelsen as star
There is no doubt that, carefully crafted though the script and direction might be, it is the star image and acting prowess of Mads Mikkelsen that gives The Hunt its edge. Voted ‘the sexiest man in Denmark’ by a woman’s magazine, Mikkelsen’s strong star image combines a rugged and nonchalant masculinity with a sense of vulnerability. There is a similar mix of ‘laddishness’, intelligence and ‘attitude’. Visually these qualities are emphasised or downplayed mainly by altering hairstyles, stubble and dress, but also by the use of spectacles. In the Hunt, Mikkelsen is almost boyish with the floppy hair and delicate specs – again a reminder of the bookish David (Dustin Hoffman) in Straw Dogs. The way in which Mikkelsen as Lucas is beaten up by the men is also reminiscent of the beatings experienced by a young Clint Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars. But though there is a strong resemblance to Hollywood movies, the key sequence which perhaps emphasises ‘difference’ involves a trip to the supermarket when Lucas is confronted by the male group determined to keep him out. The script here presents a much more carefully thought through response rather than the explosion of violence that Hollywood might offer us.
If my analysis has suggested that The Hunt is straightforward in its narrative about the hunters and the hunted, I should stress that it is anything but. The narrative is seemingly ‘resolved’ but then continues with an epilogue a year later which raises questions again about ‘hunter’ an ‘hunted’ and puts some doubts in our minds about what we have seen. The film is indeed ‘open-ended’ and therefore potentially disturbing. It’s a must-see and stands up well to repeated viewings.
After the Wedding is a full-blown melodrama with a heavyweight cast. It features several elements of what we now see as director Susanne Bier’s authorial style – the hand-held camera and big close-ups, the strong sense of colour pallete (blues and greens here) and a plot that involves a connection to aid work in India. Weddings in many cultures are events which do more to reveal the tensions in families than to celebrate the foundation of a new relationship. And so it is in this case. Mads Mikkelsen is Jacob, a Dane who has lived in India for the past twenty years or so and has established an orphanage project to help street children. He is invited back to Copenhagen to be interviewed by a hotel billionaire interested in making a large-scale charitable commitment. The man in question turns out to be Jørgen – played by Rolf Lassgård, the formidable Swedish actor and one of the few figures in Nordic cinema capable of matching Mikkelsen at full throttle.
Jørgen procrastinates and invites Jacob to his daughter Anna’s wedding. When Jacob arrives at the grand mansion in its extensive grounds he is shocked to see that Jørgen’s wife (and Anna’s mother) is Helene – played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, currently the Danish Prime Minister in Borgen. We can all probably guess what the revelation that follows will be and the fourth major player in the drama becomes Anna herself, well played by Stine Fischer Christensen. But this revelation is not actually the main narrative twist – the real question is why Jorgen has seemingly engineered a situation which can only cause trouble. I won’t reveal the answer but only say that in developing the narrative, Bier sets up some very interesting debates about entrepreneurship and global capitalism, foreign aid and charitable giving etc. alongside personal happiness and responsibilities and family commitments. This is an interesting mix which we don’t often find in a melodrama. We don’t, of course, get a neat answer and nor should we, but the discussion is valuable.
The film looks terrific and I found it to be an intriguing mix of the vitality of the Dogme-style camerawork (hand-held and minimally lit) and strong acting performances with the sumptuous melodrama mise en scène of the mansion interiors – most evident in Jørgen’s room full of the heads of animals he has shot (possibly a reference to Vincente Minelli’s Home From the Hill?). The Indian locations at the beginning and end of the film also add colour – and music. In that sense the film is certainly a melodrama, as it is with the various plot coincidences. The four actors are all capable of expressive performances with Lassgård particularly good in a boorish drunk scene and Mikkelsen very good at being sullen and aggrieved.
But as well as a satisfying melodrama, After the Wedding asks us to consider what we achieve in our lives. Is looking after your loved ones as important as helping thousands out of poverty? Does helping thousands mean atonement for actions that hurt a few? If you are ‘good’ but don’t help anyone, even those you love, as much as you would like to, does that make you a failure? From this you can move on to more philosophical questions. Is foreign aid ever a good idea? Is it more to assuage the guilt of the giver than to help those who ‘receive’ it?
After the Wedding was nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar. Susanne Bier didn’t win but she only had to wait a few years until Haeven (2011)
I’m looking forward to seeing Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, a festival prizewinner starring Mads Mikkelsen. It’s Mikkelsen’s second major performance of the year, following A Royal Affair, one of my top films released in the UK in 2012. Vinterberg has not really had a success in the UK since Festen back in 1998. I confess that I haven’t seen the films that he made during the 2000s but the arrival of The Hunt has prompted me to go back and review the impact of the Dogme movement led by Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. I want to consider what it means 15 years on from the first Dogme film and how much it has influenced the current resurgence of Danish film and TV.
Festen was officially ‘Dogme #1’ – the first title to receive the certificate used as a title card for each Dogme film. Open Hearts was ‘Dogme #28’. According to this useful Dogme ’95 page, the certificates were dropped after ‘Dogme #31’ in the same year – but the same website lists another 70 or so films that claim to be following the ‘Vow of Chastity’ conjured up by von Trier and Vinterberg in 1995 – the internationally celebrated centenary of the cinema. Whether or not filmmaking needed to be ‘re-invented’, von Trier and Vinterberg spoke some sense amongst the blather with which they promoted their Dogme idea. They managed to make the whole Dogme debate into one which encouraged lots of further discussion and inspired dozens of low-budget filmmakers, many of them first-time directors. They also made, with their Danish colleagues, several entertaining and interesting films. Crucially, they also put Denmark, one of the pioneers in filmmaking in the 1910s, back on the international map and opened up opportunities for Danish writers, directors and actors.
Open Hearts is interesting for several reasons. It stars Mads Mikkelsen and was directed by Susanne Bier. Already a successful director in Denmark with The One and Only (1999), Bier has gone on to make several prize-winning films that have captured the attention of specialised cinema audiences worldwide. Keith has written about In a Better World (Haeven), which won the Best Foreign language Oscar in 2011, and I know that Rona is a fan. In this 2002 film Susanne Bier approaches a Dogme project much as Lone Scherfig did in Italian for Beginners (2000). Scherfig’s film turned out like a kind of romcom and Open Hearts has a similar generic familiarity without resorting to obvious genre formulas. The frame is 1:1.37, the camerawork is handheld and presented in clear sharp images – apart from the occasional night-time shot where the grain shows without powerful lighting. The film actually opens with a double Dogme conceit. The Vow of Chastity forbids ‘optical effects’, so Bier uses an infra-red camera to track through a city centre at night. At the same time, we hear seemingly non-diegetic music – another forbidden choice in a Dogme film. But then we realise that the young woman we see in the first shot filmed without infra-red is actually listening to an MP3 player through earphones. Following this little ‘play’ with the rules, the ensuing drama sticks close to the Dogme idea and delivers a riveting domestic drama, a form of realist melodrama. (There is one rule that is broken though – Bier occasionally uses a Super 8mm camera to show what characters might be thinking about in the middle of a conversation.)
The young woman in the opening sequence is Cecilie (Sonja Richter) who is about to meet her fiancé Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas – currently playing Sarah Lund’s partner in The Killing 3). She’s a restaurant chef and he’s a postgraduate student about to set off on another exciting overseas field trip. After a night of passion she drives him to his departure point where a terrible accident occurs and he is seriously injured – and paralysed from the neck down. The woman responsible for the accident is Marie (Paprika Steen) and in classic melodrama coincidence, her husband Niels (Mikkelsen) is a surgeon at the hospital where Joachim is taken. Niels finds himself comforting Cecilie – and falling for her. Desperate to help Nikolaj, Cecilie finds herself rejected as he tries to come to terms with what has happened. I won’t spoil more of the plot – it should be clear from just this brief outline that the drama has lots of possibilities, especially when we realise that the young teenage daughter of Marie and Niels also has a role to play in a developing family melodrama. There is a neat conflation of several familiar narratives – the whirlwind romance in unusual circumstances, the marriage drama and, slightly less familiar, the ‘facing quadriplegia’ drama (cf The Sea Inside).
The Dogme approach in one sense ‘reduces’ cinema since it bans a whole range of cinematic devices. On the other hand it enhances the most important features – a tightly-written script and the direction of actors. The results can be, as they are here, raw and powerful emotions with a high degree of credibility. There are relatively few locations and no use of ‘special’ mise en scène ideas – though audiences can certainly ‘read’ symbolism into decisions to locate scenes in, for example, a kitchen or a furniture store.. Everything rests on what the actors say to each other and how they say it. ‘Realist melodrama’ of this kind is often startling because it seems to signify ‘honesty’/’authenticity’ – i.e. it constructs these concepts using just script, performance and basic camera operations. This ‘honesty’ is both shocking and sometimes very funny in a dark way. This is exemplified by a sequence in which Joachim in his angry reaction to his situation and his concern about Cecilie’s love, turns on the older nurse who has been assigned to his personal care. He uses the most obscene and personally offensive language he can think of, but later we see further exchanges which suggest that she gives as good as she gets and that Joachim is becoming less aggressive. (The nurse is played by Birthe Neumann, the mother from Festen.) The script is by Anders Thomas Jensen, who is now one of the leading scriptwriters in Denmark. In 2002 he already had two Dogme films to his name and since then he has worked extensively with Susanne Bier as well as on Lars von Trier projects.
I enjoyed Open Hearts very much and I recommend it as an antidote to sentimental Hollywood films with some of the same ingredients. Susanne Bier was already an established director when she made Open Hearts, so this shows that the Dogme approach is something that isn’t just good for relatively new directors, but that it can add something to the work of experienced directors as well. I think that in this case, the simplicity of the Dogme approach highlights the acting talent in Denmark as well as the strong script and excellent direction.
Some more Susanne Bier films to follow, I hope, and then The Hunt.
Useful analysis of the film’s narrative and form. (Beware that this includes more spoilers than the outline above.)