What is it with filmmakers and mental retardation? It seems as though use of the differently abled as a central theme ranks second only to troubled childhood when it comes time to make a "personal" film. The connection between the two is fairly obvious: the artist as gentle innocent besieged by a hostile world (Shine, All the Little Animals), often more profound and "deep" in his or her simplicity than the rest of society with all its neuroses. If one is to take Sling Blade at face value, for example, then we must assume that mental patients are exceptional at dealing with dysfunctional fathers and gay-rights issues.
On a more superficial level, filmmakers who see themselves as weird or insane are very fond of depicting more obvious disorders: Crispin Glover, for one, has been trying for years to make a movie about a village populated entirely by people with Down's Syndrome, and Harmony Korine managed to successfully pull off a very similar concept in Gummo.
The Danish "Dogme 95" manifesto, which advocates a more stripped-down approach to directing and is designed to bring out the truthfulness in performances rather than distract from them with lights, props, and effects, seems to have particularly attracted artists obsessed with such pseudo-profundity. There's Korine, of course, whose Dogme film Julien Donkey-Boy dealt with a troubled schizophrenic and his insane father; there's also Dogme co-founder Lars von Trier, whose TV miniseries The Kingdom featured a Greek chorus of dishwashers with Down's Syndrome as the only ones who really knew what was going on. And now we have the latest Dogme release, Sôren Kragh-Jacobsen's Mifune, the story of a man and his mentally challenged brother, a film that could have been pitched in Hollywood as "Funny Farm meets Rain Man, with a dash of Pretty Woman."
Directed by Sren Kragh-Jacobsen
Screenplay by Jacobsen with Mogens Rukov and Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring Anders W. Berthelson, Iben Hjejle, Jesper Asholt, and Emil Tarding
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Mifune begins with a wedding, as successful businessman Kresten (Anders W. Berthelson) marries his boss' daughter. Following a night of ludicrously wild sex, Kresten receives a call telling him that his father has just died, a fact that comes as a shock to his wife, since Kresten had always claimed not to have a father. It turns out that Kresten had been embarrassed by his father's humble origins as a farmer and must now travel out to the farm to take care of his retarded brother Rud (Jesper Asholt) until a suitable home or guardian can be found. Initially hostile to the difficulty of tending to his spirited sibling, Kresten eventually warms to the task and falls into a childhood pattern of pretending to be Toshiro Mifune's character from The Seven Samurai, a game that Rud finds endlessly amusing.
Matters get complicated when Kresten places an ad for a housekeeper and Liva (Iben Hjejle), a beautiful call girl who has been having problems with her primary source of income, shows up. Both Kresten and Rud are instantly smitten, naturally. When Liva's delinquent adolescent son Bjarke (Emil Tarding) comes to stay with them, things get even more complicated, at least until Bjarke's cruel teasing of Rud turns into admiration for a fellow "lost" child. In a reversal from his earlier position, Kresten now starts to lie to Liva and Bjarke about his life as a businessman. Needless to say, his two worlds will ultimately collide.
To the credit of both director Jacobsen and Dogme founders von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, the minimalist aesthetic does bring out some truly raw performances -- particularly in Hjejle and Tarding -- and adds an emotional truth to the proceedings, giving it the feeling of a Mike Leigh film (like many of Leigh's films, it also keeps going way after we get the point). It's too bad the material the actors have to work with is so rote. Jacobsen hired professional script doctor Mogens Rukov and the younger director Anders Thomas Jensen to help him with the screenplay, which wasn't finished until four days before shooting began. Bad idea. If you're going to pare down your narrative techniques to the basics, there had better be a strong story behind it. Even the best of actors can't make a masterpiece out of clichés (just ask Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, or Samuel L. Jackson about their Star Wars experience). In addition to Rud, whom we are alternately asked to laugh at, laugh with, and admire for his profound simplicity, there's the old hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold story line, and the classic "business + city life = bad; simplicity + farm + countryside = good" routine. Not that these themes are unrealistic, but how many times have we seen them before?
Under the Dogme guidelines, of course, simplicity is better, at least from a technical standpoint. But that doesn't mean that the ideas need be so simplistic. Vinterberg's The Celebration had several subplots and levels going on at once, and Julien Donkey-Boy was nothing if not narratively challenging. Mifune has been touted by its PR people as proof of how undogmatic Dogme can be, allegedly freeing up a director of commercial films to turn in a great piece of storytelling. So what is the point? Why use a radically monastic aesthetic to make, essentially, a mainstream film, when using mainstream techniques would be more likely to get it to an appreciative audience? The only answer that comes to mind is gimmickry, pure and simple. And while a strong case could be made that Dogme is inherently a promotional gimmick, it has at least delivered some innovative films in the past. Mifune, however, is not one of them.