Lies, Damned Lies, and Family Lies
The avant-garde movement in filmmaking known as Dogme (or Dogma) 95 — which eschews any artistic pretensions or artifice in the making of a movie — was conceived by directors in Copenhagen in 1995. A handful of movies, the most well known being the recent julien donkey-boy, have been produced in strict adherence of the group’s manifesto, called the Vow of Chastity, which includes requirements like location shooting with handheld cameras and nothing but natural lighting and props found on the location.
I knew nothing about Dogma when I saw Mifune, the latest film to earn the seal of approval from the Danish Dogma Collective. Which is probably for the best, because otherwise I’d have ended up paying too much attention to its technical aspects, and I’d have missed what turned out to be a damned entertaining movie.
Like a cross between Rain Man and Cold Comfort Farm, Mifune is a weirdly funny farce about the impossibility of evading the past, no matter how hard we try to remake ourselves. Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen) learns this lesson the hard way. A successful businessman in Copenhagen, the thirtyish Kresten gets a disturbing phone call the morning after his wedding day — his father has died. The situation is, well, awkward, because he’d told everyone, including his new wife, Claire (Sofie Gråbøl) — who also happens to be the boss’s daughter — that he had no family. Now Kresten also must reveal the existence of a brother, whom Kresten says runs an accounting firm in another city. So, he’ll just pop out to the family manor for a few days, to help his brother with the funeral arrangements and to sell off the antiques — no, Claire needn’t go with him, he insists.
It soon becomes obvious why he has lied to everyone. The family farm — seemingly set in the middle of a marsh — looks like its main crop is rocks. The house is more a nest than anything else, a hovel of peeling paint and broken windows. The farm is so remote “it’s 20 minutes by taxi to the mailbox,” a visitor quips. Kresten’s childhood friend Gerner (Anders Hove) sums the place up thus: “They burn down farms like this.”
But worse than the peasant roots Kresten was trying to hide from in the big city is the truth about his brother, Rud (Jesper Asholt). Rud is not an accountant — he is actually mentally retarded, a simple but sweet overgrown kid who’s devastated by the death of his father, his caretaker. Not only is there no estate to be settled — though Kresten keeps assuring Claire over the phone that that’s what keeping him from returning to the city — but Kresten has to figure out what to do with Rud, who is utterly incapable of looking after himself.
As with Rain Man‘s Charlie Babbitt, Kresten’s early frustration with Rud thaws into genuine affection — and like Cold Comfort Farm‘s Flora Poste, Kresten decides the old family farm isn’t ready to be written off just yet. A highly misleading advertisement for a housekeeper Kresten places in a Copenhagen newspaper turns up Liva (Iben Hjejle), a prostitute* looking to escape the city for a while — which in turn brings her snotty little brat of a brother, Bjarke (Emil Tarding), out for a visit. Toss in Rud, who thinks Liva is a comic-book goddess-warrior come to life, and Kresten — who, natch, finds himself attracted to Liva — and we have quite a dysfunctional little family trying to sort itself out.
Though the film takes some dark, nasty turns, it’s mostly pretty light-hearted, and in the end quite affecting. Like Rain Man, it gets a great deal of its charm from the sincere relationship between the brothers. Asholt is extraordinary as the simpleminded Rud, from the determined bent with which he embarks upon the most uncomplicated of things, like scratching off lottery tickets, to the delight he gets from playing an old childhood game, in which Kresten pretends to fight Tishiro Mifune in their basement (Seven Samurai was a favorite film of theirs). Berthelsen makes the clichéd fish-out-of-water city slicker feel fresh — watching Kresten chase chickens around in his stylish city clothes is funny because Berthelsen is so unself-conscious about it. And the resigned annoyance with which he deals with Rud’s exasperating behavior — as when Rud gets his head stuck in the sunroof of Kresten’s car — says more about the real, if sublimated, love Kresten feels for his brother than any dialogue could.
Check out Mifune‘s official site (which is also the official site of Dogme 95) — you’ll find a signed confession from Mifune‘s director, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, admitting to the transgressions of the Vow of Chastity (which you can also read at the site) he committed in the making of the film. Are these guys, who call themselves the “Brethren” of Dogme 95, taking this all a little too seriously? Is Dogma a PR stunt, or will it save film from itself?
Who knows? And who cares? Mifune is a little gem, however you look at it.
*I did say this was a farce.