Mifune (1999)

by Lesley Smith


When Kersten (Anders W. Berthelsen) courts material success in Copenhagen, he also captures his wealthy boss’s daughter, Claire (Sofie Gråbøl). Lacking the confidence to flaunt his faintly Gothic rural roots (his father is a farmer, his mother was a suicide “from the oldest tree in Denmark,” his older brother is mentally retarded), Kersten has claimed the sympathetic social neutrality of orphanhood. At the wedding, his brand new father-in-law enthusiastically salutes the man who “came from nowhere” to revolutionize both the company and his family.

But at the end of an exhausting and also triumphant wedding night, Kersten suddenly confronts the chink in his yuppie armor. A phone call tells him his father is dead and his older brother left to fend for himself. Without the ruthless gall that lets money alone solve problems, he succumbs to a nagging residual loyalty and agrees to return to the family home. In Mifune, “nowhere” comes back to bite, exposing not only the seductive pleasures and revelatory pitfalls of upward mobility, but also the idiosyncrasy of the local, beneath the saccharine symmetry of global culture.

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Director: Søren Kragh-Jacobsen
Cast: Anders W. Berthelsen, Iben Hjejle, Jespher Asholt, Sofia Gråbøl, Emil Tarding

(Nimbus Film)

The slender plot provides a pretext for a richer investigation of the inconvenience of human emotion. Initially determined to camp in the dilapidated family farm only until he has found somewhere to stash his embarrassing brother, Rud (Jespher Asholt), Kersten discovers an nascent conscience when a sinister one-time friend suggests caching Rud in a hospital for the incurably mentally ill. Lying stoutly to his impatient, mystified, and potentially jealous wife, Kersten advertises for a housekeeper. His duplicitous ad attracts only a cynical carriage-trade hooker (whose heart of gold begins and ends with her own intransigent brother, whose private education her tricks finance) seeking temporary escape from a threatening anonymous caller and a callous pimp. The lines of the oddball, happily-ever-after pseudo-family that might emerge from the movie — bitch wife sidelined, redeemed hooker Liva (Iben Hjejle) and Kersten as “parents,” Rud and Liva’s brother Bjarke (Emil Tarding) as “children” — appear fairly quickly. However, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen’s skillful direction leaves the critical question of whether the audience and characters will reach it through black comedy or tragedy always in doubt.

This deliberate uncertainty stems, in part, from his membership of the Dogma 95 group of Danish film-makers. In the spring of 1995, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg issued a manifesto condemning sensation and trickery in films. They wrote:

“Having the characters’ inner lives justify the plot is too complicated, and not high art. As never before, the superficial action and the superficial movie are receiving all the praise.”

They thus called for a simplification of the process of filmmaking and a greater complexity in its psychological development. Dogma 95 filmmakers sign a “vow of chastity” (agreeing to shoot on location only, import no props to the location, use only hand-held cameras and natural light, for example). It concludes with the claim, “My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings.”

For Kragh-Jacobsen, making the group’s third film (if you don’t count American writer-director Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-boy, which they do not, on their website), “force” is too strong a term. In the pale summer light of rural southern Denmark, his camera plays a waiting game, as if its purpose were to discover what might happen, rather than to trigger or frame a pre-planned sequence of events. For example, early in the film, Kersten, emotionally and physically exhausted by trying to manage both his father’s death and his terrified brother’s anguish, sits down in the room containing his father’s makeshift bier. The camera simply sits down with him. The barren, dilapidated room stretches out like an abandoned mediaeval church. Suddenly, an arm flashes surreally from between the covers draping the bier. Neither Kersten, nor the audience, is quite sure of what’s just happened. The camera waits. Another movement. A person?

Kersten parts the curtain and finds his nervously smiling brother, seeking the security of his father’s body even in death. In this early scene, Kersten rediscovers his brother’s vulnerability, charm, and potential for puckish anarchy. And in the camera’s patient stare, the audience can almost watch the spider skeins of obligation and affection draw him ever closer to the farm and his family.

The camera’s alchemy of attention works equally well in more dramatic scenes, especially in the absence of the aural hyperventilation of soundtrack cues. (Dogma 95 Rule 2: The sound must never be produced separately from the images or vice versa. [Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.]) When some drunken country “friends” of Kersten try to rape Liva (having discovered her profession) or in Kersten’s frequent angry outbursts at Rud, the very absence of orchestrated visual exposition reveals the potentially fatal violence lurking, like the viewer’s voyeuristic gaze, on the margins of every shot. Even the long and frequent exteriors frame the lonely landscape as another character, where a half-heard birdsong and the faint susurration of wind replace the human voice as a kind of Greek chorus of the air. Though the antithesis of Vinterberg’s The Celebration‘s barracuda-like lens, Kragh-Jacobsen’s patient, reflective direction is equally unsettling.

Unlike their American counterparts, the strongest characters in this film, Liva and Kersten, are not bejeweled with careful prescriptions of life-enhancing pain. Instead, they are ambushed by the unexpected passions of contingency, constantly improvising a life from the clash between who they want to be and what they are. And they are not always nice. Liva viciously mocks the two hapless brothers when speaking by phone to her posse of Copenhagen working girls (she’s especially cutting when reporting Kersten’s transparent desire to abandon Rud to her care) and alternately tantalizes and quashes Kersten’s sexual interest in her.

Kersten is equally cruel to Rud. When he wants to wash his brother before the new housekeeper arrives, he hoses him down as one would a wallowing cow. Not surprisingly, Rud spins into hysteria, which only Kersten’s impersonation of the last samurai, Toshiro Mifune (which gives the movie its title), can calm. Kersten indulges in this childhood game not because he cares about his brother, but because he wants him passive and obedient when the housekeeper arrives. Yet, rampaging round the cellar, wearing on his head two leather gloves and a saucepan, Kersten is almost as hysterical as his brother is, at least to the just arriving Liva. As in all subtle comedy, the underlying life-or-death desperation of the characters involved makes the scene as agonizing to watch as it is amusing.

Though his importance as a character fades as the potential love story between Kersten and Liva unfolds, Rud is the genuine center to this film. In his bunched, eloquent hands and tremulous expressions, Jesper Asholt conveys visibly the terror of the unknown that the other characters hide behind the strangled rituals of an elusive everyday life. The way in which Rud constructs a “reality” from comic book characters and space invaders, whose ships leave mysterious circles in the lush fields of grain, heightens the absurdity of convention and reveals its consolations. The aspirations of the characters — a return to “normal” — find bodily tenderness in the actor’s odyssey around the three strangers (four, if one includes death) who invade his home.

Many American reviewers have misread the movie as just one more episode in the shtick-peddling yuppie coming-of-absolute-truth drama that has danced across cinema screens, in mutating forms, since the birth of the cinema. But in Mifune, it’s not simply the self that reawakens, as so often happens in U.S. takes on this story (such as American Beauty), but also a history and a culture, the unique markers of Danish nationality beneath the anodyne surface of multinational familiarity. In the opposition between urban business and rural life, between materialism and poverty, lies the tussle between an Americanized global culture of material gain (represented by Kersten’s Copenhagen life and couture-clothed wife) and a faithfulness to the language, culture and history of a particular place.

But this opposition is not the simple black and white polarity of country + tradition = good, and city + material gain = bad. Rural Denmark isn’t a prettified rusticity, a suitable case for nostalgia. The town nearest to the farm is bleak, while the country dwellers live in unpicturesque poverty. Kersten likes his black-clad Copenhagen life, and only recommits to the country when his wife’s vengefulness closes all his metropolitan options. Director Wim Wenders has captured best the ambivalence of his European compatriots to American culture, the culture which gave them the movies, especially the modern Greek drama of the Western, and which simultaneously threatened to rob them of the audience for their art. In 1984, he wrote:

“American Dream,” then, is: a dream OF a country IN a different country, that is located where the dream takes place.

As Europeans (I confess, as reviewer, to my own non-American past), we want the dream to counterpoint our own, less glamorous reality. But we don’t want the dream to swallow that reality. For if the dream takes over, where can we go to escape it?

And that same longing lies behind Dogma 95’s own aesthetic, which abjures the high-budget, fragmented, multi-million dollar filmmaking of contemporary Hollywood, where, in Kragh-Jacobsen’s words, “the director is raped by technology.” The fairy-tale resolution of Mifune, hard-won though it is, marks the triumph of hope over experience. But when hope has such panache, who needs experience?

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