A ROYAL AFFAIR



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With cinematography by Rasmus Videbaek, costumes by Manon Rasmussen and production design by Neils Sejer, the new Danish film A Royal Affair is a sensual series of scenes that makes you feel as if you’re turning the pages of a coffee table book or strolling through an art museum featuring an exhibition of Gainsborough, Constable and Turner.     From a technical standpoint, the movie is a feast for the senses.  The story itself, though never boring and even fun in a Masterpiece Theater soap opera type of way at times, is a bit more wibbly wobbly.
It takes place during the Enlightenment in Denmark, apparently the only European country at the time not to have had its cherry popped by that intellectual movement (and just to get it out of the way, yes, there’s something rotten here, okay?).   The Danish king, Christian VII, is not quite all there in the head  and is merely a puppet of an aristocracy that treats the rabble as, well, rabble, if not worse (though the movie plays a little fast and lose with exactly how crazy he is).  He takes as his wife Caroline Matilda, an English princess with Enlightenment tendencies (who tells the story in flashback form through a series of somewhat clunky voice overs—she’s this witness person to the events, see, even events she never ever witnessed).  Her Enlightenment tendencies even extend to the boudoir, when, after a truly awful wedding night (to put it politely), Caroline refuses to have sex with Christian again.  And all that’s just the background. 
The real story begins when Rantzau, a member of the aristocracy who has been exiled from the King’s inner circle, tries to get back into Christian’s good graces by suggesting a common doctor, Johan Struensee, become the King’s private physician, which Struensee does by playing a round of Shakespearian trivial pursuit with Christian (it makes sense if you see it).  Struensee is a secret member of the Enlightenment (his alter ego is “anonymous”) and with the help of Rantzau and Caroline, plans to bring Denmark kicking and screaming into the 18th century (there are also plenty of parallels to issues facing America today if that’s your thing).  Problems arise when Struensee starts sleeping with Caroline (don’t you hate when that happens?).
As was said, the story is always interesting.  But at the same time, I don’t think it quite works on its own terms.  The screenwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel, who also directed (and a far cry from his international hit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, one might safely say) try to sell Struensee’s story as a tragedy on the level of Shakespeare and Sophocles, if not Sir Thomas Mallory (who is referenced with a not so subtle lack of subtlety).  According to Heisterberg and Arcel, Struensee’s downfall, his fatal flaw, was his passion and true love for Caroline (with the irony being that a man of Enlightenment ultimately couldn’t control his…reason).
Sorry, but I’m not convinced.  Part of my credulity arises from a feeling that it wasn’t always passion that was driving Struensee, but an inability to control his own cock (yeah, I said it, what are you going to do about it), a situation men often like to think is the same thing, when it’s more often than not, not.  And more to the point, there is plenty to suggest here that Struensee’s real flaw was not the tragic one of forbidden love, but the more down to earth failings of just not being smart enough to run the country; that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; and that there are limits as to how far Enlightenment ideas could actually solve the problems of the 18thcentury.  In actuality, I suggest it was a far more complex situation than simply who was fucking who.  Because of this, a strong beginning tends to lose some of its emotional tension in the second half as it becomes a somewhat routine doomed love story.
But A Royal Affair does have one thing going for it and that is its lead Mikkelson in the role of Struensee.  I have to be honest; I can’t get enough of my Mads.  An improbable leading man with a face of impossibly high cheek bones and a visage that looks like he was the loser in a boxing match, he commands the screen, and there is little point in fighting it.   And there is heat between his doctor and Queen Caroline.    So A Royal Affair may not be perfect, but it has its moments, especially when its leading man is on the screen.
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THE HUNT



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I can’t really say that The Hunt, the new Danish movie about a man accused of pedophilia that was not that country’s foreign language film entry in the Oscar race (that went to A Royal Affair), is particularly ambitious.  It doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre of films about child molesting except perhaps make you realize how really sad it is that enough movies have been made about the subject that we can actually give it its own genre and that we can actually now say that a film brings nothing new to the topic that myriads of other films haven’t already.  
At the same time, it definitely gets the job done and is never boring.  There are also some jarringly effective scenes of violence (a son defending his father; a confrontation at a grocery store; a painful interaction at Christmas Eve mass—we may think that Europe is fully secularized, but the more one sees movies and TV shows from over there, the more one realizes how important religion still is).   And an unnerving, in a way, conclusion that dramatizes how easily one can forget all the atrocities that a group of people have rendered unto you; the ending seems to suggest that time heals everything (well, for almost everybody) and that one can become friends again quite easily with people who have betrayed you as if nothing had ever happened (is that a happy ending or an unhappy one, I’m not quite sure).
But the movie also has one other thing going for it.  The lead is played by Mads Mikkelson, the alliterative leading man who is fast becoming an international star (he was La Chiffre in Casino Royale and also stars in A Royal Affair—you’d think he’d learn to share, by now).  I  don’t know what it is about him.  He’s not traditionally handsome.  His cheekbones are impossibly high and he has a perpetual look of Garboisc sadness with eyes that always seem to be watering in that Katherine Hepburn post Summertime way.  But still, he’s attractive and intriguing.  He’s Humphrey Bogart with lighter hair.   He’s also talented, which never hurts.
In The Hunt he plays Lucas, a kindergarten teacher.  His best friend’s daughter, also one of his students, makes a sexually suggestive comment about him in a fit of pique.  The accusation isn’t true. It’s a little unclear that she fully understands what she said.  But it’s too late.  Even when she tries to take it back, no one will let her.  And Lucas’ life quickly gets sucked into a dark hole.  And Mikkelson makes the most of the role winning the best actor award at Cannes. 
The movie was written by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm with Vinterberg also directing. Vinterberg first burst onto the international scene with his explosive Dogma film Festen (The Celebration), a triumph that may turn out to be one of the most important films of the 1990’s due to Vinterberg’s groundbreaking use of digital filmmaking that is today being integrated into almost every area of the industry.    His movies continued exploring the darker side of Danish life.  In 2010, he and Lindholm also collaborated on the movie Submarino (no, it has nothing to do Marvel DC comics), a stark study of two brothers psychologically damaged and estranged over an incident that happened when they were little and who now reunite for their mother’s funeral.  I don’t know what it is about Scandinavian film.  Denmark is supposed to be the happiest country on earth, but you’d never know it from the movies they make.
As effective as The Hunt is, it also feels a bit like Vinterberg is marking time.  As was said, he doesn’t really bring anything new to the subject and thus the movie ends up being more of a first rate vehicle to show off Mikkelson’s talents.   If you want to see a really devastating film about a man falsely accused of molesting children, see Guilty, the true story of a man and his wife arrested for being part of a child slave ring.  Lucas’s ordeal was spring break in Cancun in comparison to the hero of Guilty. But until then, The Hunt will more than do.

WAR IS HECK: Reviews of Flame and Citron and Inglourious Basterds


Though it sounds like a drink created by Absolut, Flame and Citron is really one of those new fangled movies in which the writers (Lars “Adam’s Apples” Andersen and Ole “Prague” Christian Madsen) and director (Madsen redux) want to complicate the myth that World War II was the good war and that all the Germans were bad and all the non-Germans (or at least those who worked with the resistance) were good. The U.S. did this sort of thing in the 1960’s and 70s with Westerns like Little Big Man. The problem is that often all that movies like this do is just reverse who the good guys and bad guys are without bringing any new insight into the situation. And to be honest, it’s a little unclear that movies like this one, as well as Blackbook and A Woman in Berlin, are any more successful at the remything thing than the U.S. was. But it was bound to happen sooner or later, so one might as well just bend over and take it like a man. Flame and Citron, though, is perhaps the best of the bunch. The characters are the most interesting so far, especially Mads Mikkelsen of Casino Royale, Prague and After the Wedding fame, as a sweaty resistance fighter (spritz girl, spritz girl, we need the spritz girl) who’s equally resistant to being a good father and husband—he’s one of those guys whose marriage is falling apart and he’s the only one in the world who doesn’t understand why. Also on hand is Christian Berkel, reprising his nasty bald headed German role (I can say that because I’m also follicley challenged) from Blackbook—he’s quickly becoming the new Otto Preminger, the German we all love to hate. As exciting and interesting as Flame and Citron is, it does suffer a bit in the storytelling department. It’s a little unclear whether these two assassins were always being manipulated into killing the wrong people, or were only tricked into it once their leader realized that the Germans were going to lose the war and he needed to cover his business dealings with the enemy. It also seems a little odd that the Germans can’t find any members of this underground group since they did little to hide it and even had a daily meeting of drinks and gossip at a local restaurant. But the film is lovely to look at and the period detail is strong and fortunately it lacks the over the top, often camp, melodrama of Blackbook.

Inglourious Basterds (written and directed by some guy called Quentin Tarantino) also has one of those Germans we all love to hate, this time played by Christoph Waltz (he’s one of those actors no one in the U.S. had ever heard of before now, but has made such a mark for himself, he’s now signed up to be in movies like The Green Hornet—lucky him). Waltz plays Col. Hans Landa. One might say he’s sort of a Karl Rove/Dick Cheney type character, someone who runs everything behind the scenes; from the way the script is written, one might even believe it was Landa who came up with the final solution, not Eichmann or any of those ilk. Landa plays a type of person who has become very popular in movies lately—the mid-level bureaucrat who actually is the real mover and shaker of world events (like Rove and Cheney). One can also find this character played by Sharlto Copley in District 9 (this actor is being rewarded for his success by being cast in The A-Team—I tell you, like no good deed, no good performance goes unpunished) and Peter Capaldi in Torchwood: Children of Earth. Such people are given the responsibility to take care of a situation, yet are often chosen so that if things go wrong, they can be the perfect fall guy. Waltz’s character is the cleverest and most powerful of them all: so powerful he can rewrite history. He’s the mid-level bureaucrat’s mid-level bureaucrat, the one that everyone hopes to be, but only a few can achieve. All that aside, there is little I can add to what everyone else has already said. From what I can tell, how much one likes this film depends on how well one likes Melanie Laurent as the Jewish movie theater owner: since I found her bland and unexciting, I found too many of her scenes the same. But the film is audacious and in your face and I loved the homages to Ernst Lubitsch’s film To Be or Not To Be (also a controversial film about World War II, though made during World War II) in which Hitler attends a theatrical performance. To be petty, I also found a couple of the scenes to go on too long and the final bloodbath at the theater to be too short. But no matter what one thinks of it, it’s hard not to come away in admiration of Tarantino for his insistence on doing what he wants (while also having something to do—not everyone who does what they want does).