Denmark/Germany/Sweden 2007. 84 mins.
An edgy, horror-tinged thriller about a divorced father's abduction of his young son is marred by a heavy-handed use of backstory in Anders Morgenthaler's Echo. But the second film of the versatile Danish director still has enough going for it as a twisted take on the Scandinavian summer-idyll genre to make a small splash outside of Danish territorial waters.
Morgenthaler is a well-known newspaper cartoonist in his native Denmark; his first film, the controversial adult animation Princess, was a dark vigilante tale of porn industry exploitation which made waves at Cannes in 2006.
Premiering at San Sebastian in the New Directors sidebar, Echo is a less showy film, at its best when it's at its most delicate - probing, via careful shifts in the narrative point of view, the father-son relationship that is at the centre of the story.
The film opens in media res with a scene that's bursting with nervous energy, as a sweaty, haunted middle-aged man and his dreamy, long-haired son of six break into an isolated, locked-up house by the shores of a lake.
It's immediately obvious that this is not the innocent father-and-son holiday that Simon (Kim Bodnia) has promised little Louie (Villads Milthers Fritsche); and gradually, from TV, newspapers and fragments of dialogue, we piece together the context.
Simon, a divorced policeman with only limited access to his son, has kidnapped Louie and taken him to a summer house in a remote area of Denmark that initially seems a random choice, but turns out to have traumatic links with Simon's past.
This, unfortunately, is where the film begins to unravel.
At first Simon's unbalanced state of mind is sketched in subtly, with horror tropes (an attic door that won't stay closed - or is he just imagining it') alternating with more conventional dramatic pointers.
Kim Bodnia puts in a brilliant performance as a man who is close to losing his mind - we can almost smell his desperation - yet who, at the same time, loves his son dearly: the moments when he snaps out of his mood and forces himself to play with Louie are especially moving. But then, in a series of loud, bombastic, fashionably desaturated flashbacks the explanation for Simon's problems is served up - and it's of deafening banality.
Things pick up again, though, when Angelique (Stine Fischer Christensen) enters the story. She's a sexy, bohemian checkout girl bored with provincial life, and although the character could easily have veered towards cliche, her role as surrogate mother and last-act catalyst is sensitively managed.
Echo's main setting, a lakeside sixties summer house with retro thatched roof and white-paneled walls, is a degraded descendant of all those rural and island retreats that have such an important escapist role in the Scandinavian psyche. Inside, the furniture is still under wraps, and it stays that way for most of the film.
The subjective but also reticent handheld camera appears to channel Simon's point of view, but pulls back from identifying with him, mirroring our own distrust of the character.
Gradually, as the father's derangement becomes more obvious, Louie takes over more of the camera's time and viewpoint, and we realise with a shock that behind his daydreaming exterior he knows plenty about what's going on.
Classical music by Vivaldi and others is used sparingly, to counterpoint the drama as much as underline it: it's as if even the soundtrack were taking its distance from Simon's delusions.
Zentropa Entertainments22 ApS
Shotgun Pictures GmbH
Film I Vast
Peter Aalbaek Jensen
Peter Rommel & Torsten Poeck
Palle Steen Christensen
Stine Fischer Christensen
Villards Milthers Fritsche