Category Archives: Denmark

Kira’s Reason (2001)

“A proper wife–if she has an affair–no one notices.”

In the Danish film, Kira’s Reason, Mads (Lars Mikkelsen) collects his wife Kira (Stine Stengade) from the mental hospital. She’s spent the last two and a half years there, and in her absence, he raised their two small boys.

For Kira’s first evening at home, Mads has arranged a large ‘welcome home’ party. Now it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to realize that it’s a bad idea to swamp someone with houseguests on their first night back home from a psychiatric institution. While some people might think that Mads just means well, to surround Kira with people could also signal a wish to avoid being alone with his wife. And naturally, there’s a degree of awkwardness between the two of them. After all, Mads didn’t visit Kira in the mental institution during her two and a half year absence.

This intriguing film follows Kira’s attempts to have a ‘normal’ life, and it’s clear almost immediately that this is not going to happen. While Mads and Kira rapidly reengage on a sexual level, Mads remains cold and remote. In spite of the fact that Kira has been locked up, and just recently released, Mads expects her to be able to cope with life and unleashes her upon an unsuspecting world. Kira tries to manage, but she’s still very, very fragile, and her attempts to mingle in society result in disaster.

Stine Stengade, who looks as though she could be related to the Kennedy women, acts her heart out here. For some scenes, she looks gorgeous. Elegant, sleek and well-kept, but at other times, her eyes assume the wild look of a trapped animal. Mads is emotionally detached from his wife, but then some scenes indicate that this is possibly a natural defense mechanism. Kira is capable of some wild behaviour, and we don’t really know all the history between them or exactly why she was locked up in the first place. But after Kira is involved with some unpleasant episodes, it’s fairly easy to grant a great deal of sympathy to Mads. But as this subtle film plot progresses, Mads does some fairly awful things too.

As an outsider, you never really know what someone else’s marriage is like, and that is certainly true of Mads and Kira’s marriage when the film begins. But the film provides an intimate insider’s look at a pathological marriage, and the hand-held camera shots help create that up close and personal feel. I really enjoyed this film up until the denouement. Somehow I’d hoped for more, and instead the film dissolved into a cliched conclusion. Not everyone is going to feel quite the same way about the big dark secret at the rotten root of Kira’s marriage, but I was waiting for something…perhaps a glorious scene of destruction that would make Joan Crawford proud. Oh well. Time to dig out an old Joan Crawford DVD….

Kira’s Reason is in Danish with subtitles, and since it’s a Dogme 95 film, expect all the non-trappings of this particular film movement. Directed by Ole Christian Madsen.

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Open Hearts (2002)

“We were just unlucky.”

In the Danish film Open Hearts Cecilie (Sonja Richter) is engaged to Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kass). Their plans for a life together are shattered when Joachim is paralyzed in an accident. At the news that he’s a quadriplegic, Joachim rejects Cecilie, and in her grief, pain and confusion, she turns to Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), the husband of Marie (Paprika Steen)–the woman responsible for the accident. This is a tale of adultery with the twist and complications of Joachim’s accident, but Open Hearts is also a superior tale that explores the complexity of motivations within human relationships.

While Joachim is under professional care of doctors, nurses, and therapists in the hospital, the other people involved in the situation–Cecilie, Niels, and Marie–are on their own. And they all collectively fail to realize that they are also reacting to stress and guilt in the aftermath of the accident. In many ways, for its focus on relationships, Open Hearts is reminiscent of Closer, but it lacks the nastiness.

Open Hearts is a Dogme 95 film–and so it sticks to realism. I am not an unconditional fan of Dogme films, but Open Hearts is a phenomenal example. With hand-held camera shots, and loads of close-ups, the meltdown of four lives is recorded with heart-wrenching realism and accuracy. When the film begins, Niels is depicted as a laissez-faire dad who would rather treat his three children with off-handed generosity than confront them with stern parenting. This detachment melts down in one scene in a supermarket which would be hilarious if didn’t bear such serious consequences, and Neils’ teenage daughter Stine (Stine Bjerregaard) immediately smells a rat when her dad’s parenting style disintegrates with his distracting torrid affair. The script offers complex characters whose actions are open to several different interpretations at each phase of the game. Open Hearts captures all the moods of its characters–despair, anguish, grief, euphoria and also numbness. Directed by Susanne Bier, this excellent, fascinating film is in Danish with English subtitles.

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Brothers (2004)

“They only shoot the bad guys, right?”

When Susanne Bier’s Danish film Brothers begins troubled younger brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kass) is released from prison. He’s met by his responsible, older brother–NATO Major–Michael Lundberg (Ulrich Thomsen). While Jannik’s mother is thrilled to see him, his father isn’t. As far as he’s concerned, Jannik is just trouble and doesn’t measure up to Michael’s worthiness as a son. Michael’s wife, Sarah (Connie Nielson) tolerates Jannik for her husband’s sake, but there’s not much love lost there either.

There’s time for just a brief tense three-generational family reunion before Michael ships off to Afghanistan. When he’s sent on a rescue mission for a wet-behind-the-ears radio operator, Michael’s helicopter is shot down, and he becomes a prisoner of the Taliban. Meanwhile back in Denmark, Michael’s family is told he’s dead. Even at Michael’s memorial service, the fractured family can’t accept Jannik.

Over time, Jannik deals with his grief by helping Sarah–remodeling the kitchen, and being an attentive uncle to Michael’s two daughters. While Sarah struggles to accept her new role as a ‘widow’, Michael suffers from some horrendous experiences at the hands of his captors.

On one level, the film deals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Michael’s failure to adjust when he finally makes it home. Burying his guilt, he’s subject to restlessness, accusations, and violent explosions. On another more complex level, the film explores the roles we all inhabit within a family structure. When one member of the family is lost, there’s a gap, but does the gap remain or is it gradually filled by survivors? In this instance, Jannik’s role within the family shifts with Michael’s absence. Does Jannik become more responsible because he’s sobered by his brother’s ‘death’ or does he become more responsible because there’s no longer the good son/bad son dynamic? Part of the film examines Michael and his father’s attempts to accept Jannik’s new role, and their discomfort with anything less than Jannik eternally scripted in the role of the wastrel son. Brothers–in Danish with English subtitles–is an excellent, moving exploration of both guilt and family dynamics.

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Like it Never Was Before (1995)

“Your cottage–number 7–almost has a sea view.”

Director Susanne Bier captures the essence of one man’s struggle with identity, sexuality, and frustrated ambitions in the marvelous film Like It Never Was Before. Rune Runeberg (Loa Falkman) is a middle-aged, mild mannered married man who’s just been passed over for a promotion. His wife Gunnel (Stina Ekblad) accepts a promotion while acknowledging that her new responsibilities will require the family to pull together and pitch in a bit more. Gunnel and Rune have three children–a teenaged daughter Lotta and two small boys Kalle and Viktor. Rune’s vague disgruntlement and sense of displacement come to the fore when the family goes to a seaside camp for their annual holiday.

Films that show people on holiday are a particular weakness of mine, and Like It Never Was Before shows perfectly the trials of a family on holiday. Expectations are high, and the facade necessary to maintain that ‘having a great time feeling’ is stretched to the limit as family tensions come to the fore under the conditions of forced socialization. In the fun-loving setting of the traditional holiday camp, the Runeberg family structure disintegrates.

Rune doesn’t have the emotional stamina to play Happy Families–instead, he strikes up a friendship with hedonistic camp handyman Petrus (Simon Norrthon), and the friendship quickly develops into a physical attraction. The holiday camp is the perfect setting for Rune’s awakening–the camp is full of quirky types and run by an Adolf-look-alike who fusses about the rules and regulations while his guests are supposed to be relaxing and having fun. Petrus charms Rune with magic tricks, but there are hints here that Petrus is a great deal more than just an amateur magician.

While marvelously sympathetic to all the characters, the film explores what happens when one man derails from his traditional, decades-long domestic role, his subsequent dilemma while contemplating duty vs. longing, and the invisibility of the individual who is submerged in the familial role. Keep an eye open for the marvelous cinematography of Kjell Lagerroos. In one scene, footage of Rune walking through a sun-drenched vista is converted into frozen tundra, and there are hints that the bourgeois family unit is rotten to the core (shots of rats overrunning suburbia, for example). Watch for some clever background shots of the rocks at the end of the film. Director Susanne Bier seems to possess a special talent for depicting the family unit in crisis (Open HeartsBrothers), and Like It Never Was Before is a subtle–but impressive and surprisingly touching film.

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