Fear Me Not (Den du frygter)

I think the trick is to accept that this is all there is.

— Kenneth (Bjarne Henriksen)

Mikael (Ulrich Thomsen) looks out on the lake near out his home. The view is strikingly serene, even majestic, and he is contemplative. On leave from work, he’s bored. “It was time to take a break from the frantic pace I was stuck in,” he thinks in voiceover, but “the changes I’d hoped for haven’t appeared. “I find it hard to stay focused. Unexpected details make me uneasy.” Now, he determines, exhaling smoke, he will write down his thoughts, seek inspiration, and “embrace every opportunity to move on.”

That opportunity comes early in Fear Me Not (Den du frygter), available starting 10 June on IFC’s Festival Direct On Demand. While rowing on the lake with his doctor brother-in-law, Mikael hears of a new anti-depressant trial at the local hospital. Feeling game or maybe just desperate, Mikael volunteers. Frederik (Lars Brygmann) is reluctant to subject his sister’s husband to any sort of risk, but agrees when Mikael presses him. The camera cuts from one man’s close-up to another, on beat with the rhythm of their rowing. We see their faces even as they never look at one another (Frederik is staring into his brother-in-law’s straining back), but as Frederik shows concern, Mikael appears resolute. It is as if his fate has been handed to him. “It’s about time,” Mikael asserts, “I had a little secret from her.”

She is Sigrid (Paprika Steen). When she arrives home from work, she greets him with visible reserve. While she’s plainly worried about his depression and less than pleased that he’s taken to smoking in the house (“Honey, would you smoke under the extractor?”), she’s also quick to take over in the kitchen when he’s having trouble preparing dinner. Their exchange is brief and barely tense, a series of close-ups pitting the couple against each other and leaving their resentments unspoken. But as the film is increasingly immersed in Mikael’s resentment, Sigrid looms ever larger as a problem, imposing rules and expectations. It doesn’t help that their adolescent daughter Selma (Emma Sehsted Høeg) looks and acts like her mother.

Mikael’s feelings are amplified — or clarified, in his mind — during the drug trial. Instructed to have his blood “scanned” every two weeks and to take one pill every morning for six months, he takes up the project with an intensity the film marks as perverse: he spends long minutes observing himself in the dark bathroom mirror as he swallows his doses. “I feel like I need to reshuffle the cards,” he thinks, then sits alone with his laptop, recording his self-observations. When Selma notes, “You’ve been quite cheerful lately,” he smiles to himself while denying any change. “Not until you feel well do you realize how uncomfortable you used to be,” he tells himself. “I thought for too long that my life was blissful boredom, for the first time in ages I feel like I’m moving on. Every moment seems intense.”

Mikael performs this intensity publicly one day in the hospital waiting room, where he sees two other trial participants argue and then begin to throw punches. As the camera pulls around to show him gazing on the sputtering tussle of men acting macho, he looks suddenly less awkward, and during a pause in the fisticuffs, he steps in, hitting one man splat in the nose, the break audible and the blood spurting. Frederik has happened on the scene, his surprise at Mikael’s bad behavior spread over his face. In turn, it’s not surprising that Mikael objects to Frederik’s announcement that the trial has been abandoned. The outburst has the pill-makers “freaked out,” Frederik says, his disdain for the wussy decision his own version of performing masculinity.

Mikael is not nearly so subtle. He keeps taking the pills secretly, pursuing his new self and “embracing” the conflict he now sees with Sigrid. When he suggests he extend his leave, Mikael feels confirmed by her reaction. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea for us, you home all the time,” she says slowly, “I don’t really know it’s just so strange, I think, pathetic in a way.” The film cuts from her look of apprehension to his disconcertingly smug expression: aha, she really is as oppressive as he supposed. It’s time, he thinks, “I made some minor corrections.”

Mikael’s transformation is less dramatic than that of The Shining‘s Jack Torrance, but the very smallness of it makes its own point. “What’s the difference between devising an act and doing it?” he asks himself. Turning increasingly sadistic and wily, he sees in his environment a reflection of himself — cold, hard, irritated. That this environment is populated by two vivacious blond women is hardly incidental. Fear Me Not‘s pace picks up in its last half-hour, but the slow burn that makes up its lengthy set-up is more compelling. As Mikael repeatedly studies his image in the mirror, he essentially conjures an opposition between his limits and freedom. He doesn’t understand which he wants, but then, he can’t see his movie’s incessant, elegant visual rendering of his dilemma.

RATING 6 / 10