Mifunes sidste sang

(Mifune's Last Song/Mifune, Denmark/Sweden - 1999)

by Vanes Naldi & Mike Lorefice
5/16/02 (Vanes 7/7/01)

Cast: Iben Hjejle, Anders W. Berthelsen, Jesper Asholt, Emil Tarding, Anders Hove
Genre: Dogme 95/Comedy/Romance
Director: Soren Kragh-Jacobsen
Screenplay: Anders Thomas Jensen & Soren Kragh-Jacobsen
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Composer: Thor Backhausen, Karl Bille, & Christian Sievert
Runtime: 98 minutes

I swear to submit to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed by DOGME 95:

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).

2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).

3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).

4. The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).

5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)

8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

10. The director must not be credited.

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a "work", as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations. Thus I make my VOW OF CHASTITY."
Copenhagen, Monday 13 March 1995
On behalf of DOGME 95
Lars von Trier
Thomas Vinterberg

Vanes: What you see above is Lars Von Trier's famous Vow of Chastity with the 10 rules of Dogme filmmaking. Dogme represents a throwback to the pure meaning of cinema, trying to represent real life without any superfluous help from special effects, "action",set pieces, fancy soundtracks, or flamboyant cinematography. In theory, Dogme works are as realistic as possible.

Some people feel like Dogme is just an overhyped and overrated way for these Danish directors to generate a cult image for themselves. Meanwhile, critics say the 10 rules limit the creativity of the director with such strict restrictions.

Mike: The reason Dancer in the Dark isn't a Dogme film is that rather than having the rules limit his vision, von Trier included those half dozen musical numbers (it didn't help save that manipulative rubbish). I think you should make the best film you can make. Period. There are too many outside forces that limit what can be done and make it difficult to get a good film made these days without handicapping yourself.

As far as the rules go, half of them are contradictory. You can't use artificial lighting, optical work, or filters, but it's okay to have a film like Julien Donkey-Boy, which I enjoyed, that's all post processed. Genre movies are not acceptable, but actually what they've done is create a Dogme genre. The director can't be credited, but their identity is hardly a secret.

What Dogme does is make it possible for these directors to make low budget films and give them a built in audience for them. For the most part, anyone watching a Dogme film will at least have an idea of what does and doesn't go, so expectations are altered in the "mysterious" directors favor. Very often, these films will be held to a different standard because of what can't be done. Basically they are going for a smaller audience, but one that will think the idea is cool and be willing to write off a number of problems due to "the circumstances".

Vanes: I can certainly understand how it might seem pretentious to totally stray from the conventional way of making films, instead creating your own rules and proclaiming it as something serious. However, it's just a breath of fresh air in the constant dumbing down of Hollywood that has become all about special effects, political correctness, mindless snickers, and "cool" characters.

Mike: I'm a great admirer of von Trier's work throught Breaking the Waves, but there's no denying the guy has a titanic ego. Stunts like flipping the jury off and calling Roman Polanski "the midget" when Europa didn't win the Palme d'Or at Cannes 1991 didn't exactly endear him to his peers or the public. He's always courted controversy, and in this case if people are debating the merits of Dogme films it's going to be to his advantage because one would hope they'd at least watch one before they worked up their list of pros and cons.

I agree that that Dogme films are more interesting than most Hollywood films, but it's not a fair comparison because you have god knows how many films Hollywood has chalked out against less than two dozen Dogme films. Dogme films are a good alternative, but that's all they can ever be because not as much that can be done. If the movement got big enough people would realize this and Dogme films would get this negative stigma that every Dogme is boring and the same. Consider that most people that disliked one Eric Rohmer film, or worse yet knew someone that disliked one or something that might have remotely resembled one, decided every French film was an actionless excursion in pretentious intellectual dialogue.

Where you are going wrong though is in believing the first class joker von Trier when he proclaimed Dogme to be something serious. The Dogma was a joke by a bunch of drunken buddies, as von Trier regular Jean-Marc Barr has said. It was a complete joke that von Trier and co. never took seriously, but the media did. How can one not laugh when they talk about this "vow of chastity" with its 10 "indisputable" rules? The biggest joke of the deal was naming this Dogma. Kind of bizarre for the name of a "free" cinema, no?

Vanes: I also disagree that Dogme limits the director's creativity. Instead, it challenges their imagination to come up with something interesting given the circumstances and restrictions. They can't fall back on impressive special effects, eye-popping action, or oft-overused Hollywood "tricks". Instead, they must rely upon a good story and strong character development to deliver their message.

Mike: The Dogma makes the director work harder because he has less tools at his disposal. It makes him, as well as the performers, focus on a few areas that are crucial to the success of this type of film. In some cases, less can be more. More often though, more will be more; that's why they call it more.

Vanes: Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's film is the third of the Dogme movement in history (previously called just "Dogme 3" and later re-named Mifune to pay homage to the Kurosawa regular who died around the time the shooting of this film) after Thomas Vinterberg's "Festen" and Lars von Trier's "The Idiots." It deals with family and the fact that no matter what happens, blood is thicker than water. Even when the relationship between two relatives seems compromised, there's always some weird escape to rebuild it.

Mike: It also deals with the fact that no matter how annoying, pathetic, and intolerable your siblings may seem, you are stuck with them. You can do things to keep them away, but you'll never be rid of them (especially since superficial action is forbidden). As a film about acceptance, it succeeds. As a film that wants us to believe that years of frustration, alienation, and barriers can be washed away in a couple days and everyone can live happily ever after, it's as if it forgot that it wasn't a fairytale.

Vanes: The film revolves around the four main character's lives and the ironic way in which their paths connect. It covers how they develop a bond and finally find a family, even if it wasn't exactly what they expected.

Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen) is a successful business manager just married to his boss' daughter (Sofie Gråbøl). Everything seems to be fine until he gets a call telling him that his father just died, so they need him back in the country as soon as possible. This opens up a huge can of worms for Kresten, for many reasons, the biggest being that nobody in the "city" knew of his past. He hid his upbringing from the others, trying to change his life by starting fresh in a place where he could be successful and forget about what came before. He's fighting to hide the truth from his wife, but as much as he disliked the country and disassociated himself from his family, he's also saddened by the news. He goes back to check if anything has changed.

Liva (Iben Hjejle) is a young and beautiful prostitute, fed up with the world she's working in. She only continues to do it because she needs the money to pay her brother Bjarke's studies. She gets mistreated by one last customer and decides to give up this business altogether (in a very unusual way, I might add) and find a new job in the country. Like Kresten, she hides from the truth, from the fact she doesn't want to see her brother and just pays his education to keep him away because they can't have a normal relationship.

Rud (Jesper Asholt) is "mentally challenged" (another hypocritical etiquette people who want to make people like that feel even more different use). He seems to live in his own world of comics, aliens, UFOs, and rings (the images, created by "aliens", you find in every respectable farm's cornfield nowadays.:P). He's naive, gentle and awkward. He mistakes Liva for a comic book character from "Linda & Valentin" and starts talking about that with her, calling her Linda, showing her UFO toys and such. He provides the biggest comic relief of the film, but it isn't a disgusting, exploiting tool like "The Other Sister" tried to use to its benefit. His awkwardness and spontaneity clashes with the "normal" people's fears, preconceptions, and prejudices. His naiveté is not a tearjerking tool to generate emotions at the expense of the handicap, but Rud is treated like a kid in man's world, unable to cope with the rest of the people around him.

Mike: Your reference to The Other Sister is an example of this films ability to manipulate without making you realize you are being manipulated. Just because the film doesn't reek of sentimentality, that doesn't exonerate it from the real problem of The Other Sister, which is using the retardation as a deceptive device. The films "cute and innocent" comical and dramatic situations are all built around, if not from, the retardation gimmick.

This film not only falls into typical trap of preaching that retarded people are people nonetheless, it takes it one step farther by jokingly showing that the non disabled people are actually more screwed up than the disabled one. This, of course, doesn't hold water especially considering there's a good reason why Kresten & Liva live the way they do, while we assume Rud lives the only way he can. Had Kresten stayed in the country, he would never have amounted to anything. He wouldn't have got where he is today as far as success and finances go if people in the city saw him as some hick bumpkin. Liva protects her brother from her work and the misery it causes her by keeping him away. While he does know what her profession is, in this case there's a big difference between having a concept of what your sister does and being exposed to it on a daily basis.

In the much better film comedy about a "challenged person" Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman's character and performance are open to scrutiny because his character has a specific problem, autism. The Rud character has no such limitations. Unfortunately, he comes off as a comical caricature created by someone whose only experience with the retarded is through a film like The Other Sister. It reminds me of a guy I used to play basketball with who used to give everyone a nickname because he couldn't remember their real name. He started calling one of my friends Rain Man. We all figured it was due to his high arching shot; this kid would throw a lay-up he wasn't using the backboard for 13 feet in the air. Anyway, one day when I was playing with these two it started to rain and someone joked that it was from Rain Man's high archers, but the guy said, "No, I call him Rain Man because he shoots like he's autistic," whatever the hell that means. Rud isn't slow and doesn't have a set of problems from being backward. I might guess his retardation is that he doesn't realize everything about him is totally abnormal, but if anything he and Bjarke seem to appreciate that fact and we're supposed to as well. It's much easier to create comedic situations using Rud because virtually anything funny one can think of can be worked into this character whose only consistent traits, as far as I can discern, are doing highly irregular things and appearing to have fun. Certainly you won't learn anything about "the challenged" or living with them from this movie, but it's sole goal, or is it its sole success, is to be funny.

Vanes: Bjarke (Emil Tarding), Liva's brother, is limited by his external image, his seemingly cynic character hides his real emotions from his sister. The first time he sees Rud he calls him a faggot, a moron, and berates the place where Kresten and Rud live as well as the type of work Liva accepted. He obviously lacks parental figures, and feels he doesn't need them because he's his "own man". He hides his vulnerability with cynicism and stubbornness. He even pretends to be a stalker, using devices to mask his voice and constantly calling Liva in the night, saying she's his "little pink whore". He eventually comes out of his "bubble" and starts to develop a relationship with Rud, Kresten and most importantly, Liva.

The premise is pretty straightforward, borrowing pages from "Rain Man" and seemingly approaching every three-act bullshit Hollywood plot for romantic dramas, but the way it's developed makes it different and more enjoyable than Hollywood productions. We know from the beginning Liva and Kresten will grow interested in each other, but the complexity of the development, the many different obstacles that get on the way of having our good old "happy ending romance" build the plot more than any useless sentimentalism. The four characters start to get closer gradually, they start to know each other (and this includes all four, since the brother/sister or brother/brother relationships were neglected because of fear and unwillingness to face the truth) and even with all the problems, they develop a family.

Mike: The key scene where everything breaks down and Kresten winds up taking it out on poor Rud is the best in the film. Kresten had previously consoled Rud when he had a breakdown from fear, but here's he's malicious because Rud was the one that wanted a family, screaming in his ear "Isn't this what you dream of?" trying to force him to sing with him like a proper little family should.

Vanes: The film could have fallen in so many traps, but it manages to remain true to its form. Probably the biggest strength of Mifune is its spontaneity: nothing feels forced, everything that happens makes sense, and there are no attempts to sensationalize something to leech tears out of us. All the characters have their strengths and weaknesses, and aren't likable from the beginning, obviously except Rud. Kresten at the beginning looks like a careless yuppie, figuring he'll make an appearance then leave that "shithole". He's afraid of losing his business, afraid that the people in the city might get to know about his secret past. He gradually re-accustoms himself to the country, so his real sentiments and character come out.

Mike: What we see makes some sense, but what we don't is puzzling as hell. We believe Kresten when he tells his wife he has to stay in the country because Rud can't be left alone because we see what happens when Kresten turns his back for a few seconds. A good example being the scene where Rud gets choked out by the sunroof of Kresten's car while Kresten is talking on his cell phone. However, didn't they tell us that Rud was living with Kresten's incapacitated father?

You are right that this doesn't have the Spielberg kind of manipulation. There's no one towering over us and yelling "Accept! Accept!" as they repeatedly pounding us with a hammer until we submit to their pathetic optimism and sentimentality. While Spielberg is incredibly pretentious and obnoxious in his methods of treating the audience as morons, Kragh-Jacobsen is much more sly. He doesn't include unnecessary scene after unnecessary scene like Overrated Steve, he does just the opposite. He makes big changes without any explanation, forcing you to accept that obviously things are the way they are now because of something that happened previously. Don't ask me if it was the last scene or the little time in between it, from what's here I couldn't guess.

Spontaneity is a strength of the acting, but a huge weakness of the film. There's no build here at all. The film might have some credibility if it was supposed to take place over a long period of time, but it seems like Liva is hired as housekeeper before Kresten's ad could have even hit the country paper. This may be a minor issue, but time and time again we're forced to accept people's feelings changing that quickly. Maybe it's believable in Kresten & Liva's relationship since they don't have any history and are still very much in the learning about one another stage, but by the end the film crumbles under constant improbability.

Vanes: Liva seems troubled and can't accept what she's doing. She can't accept her relationship with anybody because she's scared of feeling something. Iben Hjejle's great performance only highlights the problems that a "big sister" like her is having trying to raise her brother. At first their relationship is based on patriarchal education, not real spontaneous will to raise someone or to live together with someone. Liva's real feelings finally emerge when she recognizes, for the first time, some sense of family attachment around her. She doesn't think this is the family she wanted, but it's the best thing she's got going, she feels good, and eventually can't help but come back to it.

Bjarke's character is probably one of the most interesting in the film because it portrays 70% of the teenagers you see out there. They try to hide their problems behind a wall of cynicism and stubbornness, thinking they're grown men but instead needing a mature figure to guide them. They also need someone who brings out the hidden kid in them out, that makes them feel comfortable doing things they'd be ashamed of doing in front of the other teenagers. Rud accomplishes this, showing Bjarke there's more than image, look or being "normal".

Mike: This aspect is good in theory, but it's not believable in this execution. Bjarke, as you said before, rips Rud a new hole after taking one look at him. I think, "if he only knew…" but I'm supposed to believe that almost as soon as he sees how weird and nutty Rud is, he decides he's cool. First impressions are often wrong, but when you peg someone pretty much right and dislike them for it, why do you then suddenly like them for it? I mean, if one is silly enough to dislike a person because they think they are Jewish, do they then like them when they find out that they are indeed Jewish? Granted Rud isn't an arsehole, but moron and pansy certainly apply, and under the kind of definition Bjarke would likely use, an almost 40-year-old virgin would be a faggot.

Vanes: One aspect of this Dogme feature that you couldn't see in the previous two works (The Idiots & Festen) is comedy. This is pure screwball comedy, with several laugh out loud moments, that given the circumstances, give a feeling of spontaneity to the film instead of focusing everything on the dramatic aspects (quite a few) of the story. Some of the scenes involving the relationship between the four are brilliant, like the scene when Liva's "colleagues" think she'd been raped by Kresten and start beating on him threatening to cut his balls off, or the scene where Kresten's wife finds Rud and Liva, and runs away screaming.

Mike: What's odd about our take on this film is that you take it seriously and think it's very good, while I feel it wasn't intended to be taken seriously yet think it's mediocre. Some of the scenes are quite funny, but I laughed as much in The Idiots which you say isn't even a comedy. Rud's explanations of why the cat has no name and the UFO doesn't make any noise are humorous. Rud also screws up names, creating such characters as "Scrooge McChicken." Just about everything involving Berthelsen imitating Mifune is entertaining. It's even touching when he does it too cheer the hydrophobic Rud up after forcing him to bathe. However, the whole bit where Kresten is embarrassed beyond belief because Liva sees him for the first time when he's doing this and his excuse doesn't hold up because Rud has vanished is one of the world's most worn out scenarios. Same with the scene where Kresten's wife finds Rud and several others. I'm not saying I require a scene to be original, and they have tried to make the scenes are bizarre as possible. My problem with the film is if you look past the odd characters, all you see is a series of familiar sketches that have been pieced together. It lacks setup, transition, and flow. It doesn't seem to have any prevailing logic.

The scene where Liva's prostitute friends think Kresten raped her doesn't make any sense given their profession. If they were a bunch of nuns, I could buy them thinking Liva spread out on a bed with her panties around her leg meant rape, but in their profession a little cash often changes one's feelings toward a man. Also, I don't think it's a stretch to assume these girls have spent many nights sprawled out, exhausted from hours of drinking and screwing. The fact that with no real explanation everything suddenly comes together for the happy ending after no one saves Kresten from these invading tyrants is the biggest pill we're forced to swallow.

Although comedy is the film's strength, several "comedic" scenes are either not funny at all, or not nearly as funny as they people behind the film seem to think they are. Even as someone who supposedly likes when movies get religion, this is one of the many scenes that's just not very original or good. You have a stereotypical we're superior to the heathens priest, except he's quite insulting, basically calling Rud an illiterate unscrupulous cretin. Rud "proves him wrong" about the illiterate part by pretending he has a book in his hand and reciting a really pathetic dirty joke to run off the priest, who is of course uptight. I liked that before Kresten can scold him, Rud tells Kresten, "he never paid dad when he bought pork." That's not enough to redeem the offensiveness of the cliched stereotypical scene though, and it doesn't even advance the plot because the understanding Rud shows here actually seems to contradict other scenes.

Vanes: Other than the aforementioned spontaneity, what really helps this film is the acting. All four leads give incredibly effective performances, especially Hjejle, who later got recognition for her role in High Fidelity. The acting here is so solid it makes you forget it's a film, it looks like something is really happening here, you're experiencing people talk in front of you, and the Dogme rules only emphasize this and help it look more spontaneous.

While Mifune never reaches the quality of The Idiots or Festen, it's often brilliant and generally incredibly enjoyable. The right mix of comedy, good acting, great character development, and an interesting story make it another interesting work that only highlights how effective the movement can be when applied to good fundamentals. The hope is that people won't start using Dogme as a tool to do "cool" films, bastardizing the genre like Hollywood always does, but at least in Europe there's a chance.



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