Dir: Aake Sandgren. Denmark. 2001. 93 mins.
This sixth production from the Dogme 95 stable is a bittersweet fantasy variant on the "noble savage" genre that has exercised art-house films such as Francois Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage or Werner Herzog's The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser, as well as more mainstream fare like the Jodie Foster vehicle Nell. While Truly Human offers few fresh insights into the theme, it's a wistful, humorously acted piece which earned two ovations at its screening in competition at San Sebastian (though no major award). The movie opened last April in its native Denmark, where it garnered 60,000 admissions on 14 screens; elsewhere its theatrical profile will be modest but, sympathetically presented, it could shine quietly on the specialist circuit and above all in ancillary outlets.
The film's opening scenes introduce the middle-class Copenhagen family of Walter (Peter Mygind), Charlotte (Susan A Olsen) and their six-year-old daughter Lise (Clara Nepper Winther). Ambitious professionals in demanding jobs, the parents both have little time for the lonely Lise, who invents for herself an imaginary friend, 'P' (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). This young man lives behind the wall of their home and is possibly the elder brother which Lise would have had if her mother had not aborted her first pregnancy 10 years ago.
But the family is devastated after a quarrel about child care arrangements leads to a tragic car accident which kills their daughter. After this, P magically emerges from behind the wall and enters the outside world, where he meets a rude reception. Walter, who he approaches first, swiftly dumps him at a refugee shelter, where P develops rudimentary social skills which allow him to get a job in a shoe shop.
The owner (Troels Il Munk) exploits him remorselessly, both at work and privately, showing him gay porn videos in an attempt to seduce him, while he also catches the eye of a young female co-worker. Meanwhile P befriends Walter and Charlotte who, tormented by remorse, are both having affairs.
The minimalist directorial style imposed by Dogme allows actors an unusual freedom, enabling them to develop subtleties unhampered by technical trickery and to move fluidly between tragedy and humour. The performances are the film's forte, with Mygind and Olsen particularly affecting as the bereaved parents, although Kaas is less so in something of a one-note role as the story's holy fool.
It is striking how the Dogme approach has led to a focus on extreme mental dysfunction, and often madness, as previously seen in the simpleton brother in Mifune, the pseudo-morons in The Idiots (which also starred Kaas) and the production of Lear in The King Is Alive. Indeed it's is becoming something of a house cliche, and future Dogme productions would do well to avoid it.
Much of the humour here springs from P's gauche efforts to fit in by imitating behaviour he observes: this yields some ripe comic moments, although the suggestion that he's more truly human than almost everyone around him is rather obvious, and the latter stretches of the film, in which P is mistaken for a child molester, become indulgently melodramatic. A curious happy ending strikes a note of whimsy which some audiences might find a cop-out.
Prod co: Zentropa Entertainment
Denmark dist: Nordisk Film
Int'l sales: Trust Film
Exec prod: Peter Aalbaek Jensen
Prod: Ib Tardini
Ed: Kasper Leick
Main cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Peter Mygind, Susan A Olsen, Clara Nepper Winther, Troels Il Munk.