Dir: Kristian Levring. 2008. Denmark. 95 mins.
Kristian Levring’s fourth theatrical feature is an unnerving psychological drama that perfectly captures the self-involvement, anxiety and perpetual search for happiness which plague the chattering classes. Anchored by a chilling performance from Ulrich Thomsen as a man descending into a ‘crise de nerfs’, the film should attract keen attention from distributors for its genre trappings, although it is less visceral and way more intelligent than the average psycho-story.
There are numerous marketing hooks here. An extremely effective trailer could be cut from the film’s creepier moments and one of the plot’s central conceits - the use of anti-depressant pills - is bound to attract publicity, especially in light of Tom Cruise’s famous rants against them.
Thomsen plays Michael, a civil servant who has taken a break from work to deal with some stress and depression issues and spend more time with his wife Sigrid (Steen) and daughter Selma (Sehested Hoeg). Ostensibly he has the perfect life. The family has just moved into Sigrid’s father’s home, a beautiful lakeside house which they are renovating, and he rows regularly with his brother-in-law Frederik (Brygmann). But he is restless, finds it hard to sleep and feels disconnected from his life with no desire to go back to work.
One day on the lake, Frederik suggests that he take part in a clinical trial for a new anti-depressant at his work. Without telling Sigrid, Michael signs up for the six month medical commitment and finds himself responding quickly with a new found sense of calm and purpose. He believes Sigrid has taken control of his life and determines to regain it.
When Frederik tells him that the pills have been found to have serious side effects and the trials have been abandoned, he secretly continues taking them.
He takes a few days off at his mother’s empty house in the country where he exercises some personal freedom by forcing a hitch-hiker to show him her breasts. Shocked at his own behaviour, he returns home but, once there, finally determines to seize control at the expense of his wife.
The final act, in which Michael’s mental faculties unwinds and he sets about destroying the happiness and safety of those around him, is unbearably tense and Levring comes up with a surprising plot twist which casts a new light on Michael’s behaviour.
If there are moments where the drama seems to veer into The Hand That Rocks The Cradle or Single White Female territory, Levring always it back into the ambiguity of mental illness. The story is taken from the lead character’s distorted point of view and his character is sympathetic for the first half of the film. Only when he starts hurting others do we understand the full extent of his collapse.
Thomsen plays him with a disturbing sense of drug-empowered self-righteousness and just the right hint of menace which never feels unconvincing or over-the-top, even when he begins to attack people physically. The excellent Steen doesn’t have much to do as Sigrid, but there are some noteworthy turns from Sehested Hoeg as his wise daughter and Stengade as Frederik’s wife who has always had a crush on Michael.
Anders Thomas Jensen
Director of photography
Pernille Bech Christensen
Emma Sehested Hoeg