From the regional to the international and back in a few short years
Celebrated, feted, and hyped almost to death in the wake of Dogma‘s first heralded successes, Danish cinema has today run aground, its ability to conquer foreign markets and impress critics no longer the given that it was just a couple of years ago. A chapter seems to have come to a close. The new Danish wave that gathered force through the second half of the ’90s — drawing world attention to the tiny Scandinavian country and giving European cinema hope that it could begin to produce films that could cross borders — has faded and left Danish film stranded at a crossroads.
Back in the mid-’90s, as a new generation of young directors began to emerge, anything seemed possible. Lars von Trier was already a well-known if unpredictable commodity, but more indicative of the new currents and trends at play were promising newcomers like Ole Bornedal and Nicolas Winding Refn, just to name two, who scored surprise hits with gutsy little films like Nightwatch (1994) and Pusher (1996).
At this point the methods of old school directors, dominating and autocratic, were being rejected by their younger colleagues who were willing to work closely with the actors. This new generation of Danish writers, actors, and directors had, as actress Paprika Steen put it, “more enthusiasm for American masters like Scorsese and De Niro than Holberg,”1 and they shared a desire to make films about average people. These new viewpoints and attitudes gave birth to films that more readily connected with young foreign audiences, however firmly entrenched some of the films would remain in Danish subject matter. Add a few committed, progressive-thinking producers willing to take risks and buck the established trends, and a new kind of cinema was made possible.
Some thought the country’s small size also played a part in the resurgent exportability of its film product. A July 1999 article in the Wall Street Journal maintained that the need for Danish studios to search for foreign investment capital gave them more foreign contacts and their films a more international perspective and style, resulting in success with foreign audiences.
The promise hinted at in the mid-’90s was redeemed and given a name — and the cachet of a “movement” — by Dogma, and the popular and critical success of three specific films — Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune, and Lone Scherfig’s Italian For Beginners — changed everything.
The huge success of The Celebration and Italian For Beginners outside Denmark was especially noteworthy and seemed to portend that films from non-English-speaking (i.e., non-American) countries could retain their uniqueness and personality yet still resonate with international audiences in a competitive way. Other European countries had a director or two who “traveled,” but Denmark seemed to be blessed with a pool of such talent and a filmmaking system that was tooled up to deliver it. It was also, again, a question of size: the Danish market was so small it could hardly contain the ambitions and egos of its star directors, who quite naturally looked beyond the country’s borders for new challenges and success and affirmation. Denmark became something of a cause celebre for those who believed that the increased exportability of regional cinemas was the only way forward.
Quite predictably, all the above-mentioned directors chose to make their next films in English for this wider international market (except Refn, who followed Pusher with the Danish-language Bleeder). And to the chagrin of Danish film boosters and patriots, they all turned out to be relative flops. Bornedal’s I Am Dina, Refn’s Fear X, Vinterberg’s It’s All About Love, Kragh-Jacobsen’s Skagerrak, and Scherfig’s Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself all paled in comparison to the previous Danish-language films of said directors, films spun on vastly lower budgets.
While the above-mentioned films are a radically mixed lot that almost defy collective categorisation, their failure to keep the momentum going represents a setback for Danish cinema, a clear disappointment for those saw the “Danish model” as crucial to bringing new voices and visions to international commercial cinema, currently so dominated by homogenous Hollywood product. But why are talented directors from non-English-speaking countries so infrequently able to infuse their “crossover” films with the same uniqueness and originality that characterize their native-language works?
It is not impossible to cross over successfully: Denmark’s two top directors, Bille August and Lars von Trier, have done so, but their achievements in this regard are unique and they offer little that their less established colleagues can — or would want to — emulate.
August parlayed his success with the Danish-spoken Pelle The Conqueror (1987, Palmes d’Or and Oscar) and The Best Intentions (Palmes d’Or) into the mother of all Danish crossovers, House of the Spirits in 1993. It was a sprawling international co-production cast with the kind of top-level stars (Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, Jeremy Irons, etc.) that were sure to capture the interest of the general public. While von Trier today has access to the same kind of A-list acting talent — Nicole Kidman, for example — he took a different path to the top: his films are “must see” simply because he is so provocative, controversial, and committed to experimentation.
But both directors had some problems with their English-language films. House of the Spirits was stilted and ponderous and written with a poor command of the nuances of English. And von Trier, who took great pains to make Breaking the Waves’ Scottish setting visually and linguistically authentic, disappointed with Dancer in the Dark which was riddled with a hodgepodge of inappropriate accents and with settings that failed to convince. The film’s lead, Icelandic pop star Bjork, playing a Czech immigrant, spoke with a “hideous faux cockney” as one British reviewer put it. This undoubtedly weighed against the film in the UK, where it flopped, but not in countries like Japan and France, where it was a huge hit — and shown in dubbed versions.
Even for Denmark’s top two directors, the move to foreign locales and a foreign language, and the need to “universalize” scripts, is fraught with obvious peril.
Von Trier appears indifferent to the pitfalls of placing his films in unfamiliar foreign settings, readily admitting that he knows nothing about America, the country in which he has set his last five scripts (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Dear Wendy (to be directed by Thomas Vinterberg), Manderlay (to premiere 2005), and Washington (to premiere 2008). Moreover, in his attempts to articulate his “idea” rather than the reality of America, he claims his ignorance is a blessing, that creatively it is actually a privilege he has never been there. Finally, why apologise? Hasn’t Hollywood played fast and loose with the facts on innumerable occasions when depicting foreign settings? This issue came to a head in Cannes in May 2003 when Dogville was attacked by some critics for its allegedly virulent anti-Americanism.
His less established colleagues can hardly afford to take his carefree approach — and they don’t. In Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself and Skagerrak, Scherfig and Kragh-Jacobsen both went to pains to authentically depict the Scottish settings of their films. Yet that attention to detail failed to salvage what were both, for different reasons, highly flawed efforts. Vinterberg (It’s All About Love) and Refn (Fear X) have taken a more experimental approach with their two American-set films, films which in any case are not so much anchored in a specific cultural setting as they are in uniquely cerebral ones. Vinterberg’s film suffers some linguistic fuzz, such as the highly unconvincing Polish accents of the two American leads, but the main problem is that it is poorly constructed, overly ambitious, and unfocused, everything that The Celebration was not. The commercial failure of Refn’s Fear X, was almost expected, departing as it did so radically from his previous films, Pusher and Bleeder, which performed well if not spectacularly at home while being unjustly overlooked outside Denmark. For his part, Bornedal, committed the same mistakes Bille August had with House of the Spirits, his I Am Dina ending up as the same kind grandiose and pretentious Euro-pudding with actors from all over Europe speaking diversely accented English that clashed with the historic Norwegian setting. No Danish director would make the same mistakes with his own language. English, on the other hand, has become a kind a generic marketing tool.
Most frustrating for those directors is that Danish audiences have spurned their pictures. One oft-cited reason for this is the lack of native, homegrown stars. But then again popular Iben Hjejle played her heart out as the lead in Skagerrak with no bounce at all resulting for the film. Even von Trier has occasional problems with the Danish public, a fact recently underscored by the distant third-place finish of Dancer in the Dark at the Danish box office for 2000, despite the fact that it had just won the Palmes d’Or and was riding a tidal wave of publicity. In any case, von Trier abandoned the Danish-language ship long ago and his hit-or-miss relationship with domestic audiences can largely be ascribed to their famous unwillingness to suffer film “experiments,” a factor certainly also at play in the poor performances of It’s All About Love and Fear X. For its part, Dogville bodes to be perhaps his most difficult film for the general viewing public, and all the standing ovations in Cannes won’t change that. It was released in Denmark, for example, in only 24 prints rather than the 50 or 60 that might have been expected.
Charging the debate in Denmark is the curious relationship that fiercely egalitarian Danes have with star culture. Their fixation with the dark side of fame is nothing less than a national obsession and is encapsulated by something called the Jante Law, a mythical code of conduct that warns against sticking one’s head above the crowd or in any way distinguishing oneself. This forced sense of modesty, or rather the zealous determination of most Danes to rebel against it, has colored critical reaction to these new English-language films. Notwithstanding the reservations about quality most of them have expressed, reviewers loudly applaud the courage of the directors — Vinterberg and Refn in particular, and of course von Trier — for having the guts to gamble and experiment.
Casper Thyberg, a lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, goes so far as to state that this is the most important thing, that Danish cinema at the moment has directors who dare to cast the “beskendenhed” (modesty) behind them.2
While audiences appear to be less charitable or patient, an article of faith here is that the eventual fruits of such experimentation can lead to great things. One of the most resounding flops of the ’80s was a critically damned experimental feature called Epidemic that only sold 5,000 tickets. It was made by a stubborn, wildly self-assured, and fiercely individualistic young man named Lars von Trier. And that is seen as the key to the success of Danish cinema, that filmmakers have the luxury to fail — and in the process develop.
The theory that the “internationalization” of Danish cinema, brought about by economic imperatives, led to the Danish Wave of the ’90s doesn’t hold. Rather, the recent successes can be traced to a general conviction in Denmark that Danish voices should be heard in the wider world while also remaining true to their own visions. This approach, carried out via unwavering support for public-funded film production, permits them the luxury of remaining fiercely independent. Only this commitment to maximum creative freedom can produce films with personality and identity, and that was what made Danish cinema exportable to begin with. And despite the disappointing box-office returns of the latest crop of films, there is no sign that this commitment will falter.