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The code imposed by Dogma 95—the Danish vow of cinematic poverty obeyed by such films as Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration and now Soren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune—stipulates many aesthetic limitations, including the exclusive use of live sound, available light, and handheld cameras. Dysfunctional families and mentally disabled characters are not required, but they might as well be. The films made thus far by the Dogmatics—including American hanger-on Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy and Dogma main man Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots—all focus on either real or surrogate families, generally with off-kilter members. It may not be a matter of official Dogma, but it seems the surrogate family is to be preferred.
Thematically, Mifune is the anti-Celebration. Whereas Vinterberg revealed the festering corruption beneath the veneer of a prosperous, seemingly loving clan, Kragh-Jacobsen forces a group of outsiders to find their only possibility of acceptance and rapport in an impromptu crypto-family. Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen) has just married his boss’s daughter, Claire (Sofie Grabol), and is ready for a life of sexual and financial fulfillment. (The film gets your attention by showing the carnal part of the deal explicitly in the opening sequence.) But the director cannot leave Kresten in such a state of bourgeois satisfaction for more than a few minutes. He immediately summons the groom home with news of his father’s death, which is a bit difficult for Kresten to explain to Claire, since he has never told her the truth about his eccentric family.
Back at the decaying farmhouse where he grew up, Kresten must arrange a funeral and find someone to care for his mentally retarded brother, Rud (Jesper Asholt), who lives in a fantasy world of UFOs and samurai warriors. Kresten is willing to imitate Japanese film star Toshiro Mifune for Rud, as he used to do when they were younger, but he’s in a hurry to return to Copenhagen and his bride. So he places a newspaper ad, not strictly truthful, seeking a housekeeper.
Enter beautiful, feisty hooker Liva (High Fidelity main squeeze Iben Hjejle), also fresh from Copenhagen. Although she gets much support from her fellow prostitutes—another idealized Dogmatic surrogate family—she can’t endure the threatening phone calls she’s been getting from some wacko who calls her “my little pink whore.” She’s been hooking only to raise money to keep her bratty younger brother, Bjarke (Emil Tarding), in a prestigious prep school, and soon he’s expelled and has no place to go but to the farmhouse. Kragh-Jacobsen has now finished assembling the new family.
It may seem unfair to keep identifying the director as the prime mover of these events, but despite Mifune’s avoidance of technical trickery, its narrative is utterly contrived. Kragh-Jacobsen and co-scripter Anders Thomas Jensen have only the slightest of stories, and the complications they use to forestall the utterly conventional boy-gets-girl payoff are hollow and arbitrary. Problems arise when they’re needed—and disappear when they’re too much bother. (Wait ’til you see how glibly the film deals with the issue of how the alternative family will support itself.) If Mifune weren’t so weird around the edges, it would essentially be Housesitter, the 1992 Goldie Hawn-Steve Martin vehicle, with a supporting role for John Malkovich in his Of Mice and Men mode.
The movie is weird around the edges, for what that’s worth. The alt-family scenario is so willfully calculated that it probably really was intended as an ironic rejoinder to The Celebration, and it’s possible that the moment where Liva defiantly urinates on a client’s carpet is a homage to a similar scene in Kon Ichikawa’s Film Actress. (After all, it’s not a big jump from Mifune to Ichikawa.) The film images, by Anthony Dod Mantle—who shot both The Celebration and Julien Donkey-Boy on digital video—offer a much more dynamic mixture of light and dark than does the narrative. Despite the harsh lighting and rough sex, Mifune is fundamentally a romantic comedy. No Dogma film yet has exactly followed the code, but Kragh-Jacobsen seems to have forgotten one of the most basic strictures: no genre pictures.
At age 19, boxer Francis Barrett represented Ireland in the 1996 Olympics, and he hopes to do the same in the upcoming Olympics in Sydney. If he succeeds, perhaps he’ll provide a proper ending for Southpaw, a documentary that never gets up to speed and ends without demonstrating much of anything.
The hook to Liam McGrath’s film is that Barrett is a Traveller, one of the formerly itinerant tribe—these days most of them are settled in decrepit trailer parks—at the bottom of Ireland’s social hierarchy. Barrett’s status is often remarked upon during Southpaw’s meandering course, but by the time the film opens, he’s already an up-and-coming champion and thus a source of pride in his native Galway. No one appears on camera to say that the Travellers constitute an inferior caste, although a well-meaning journalist occasionally reminds us that some Irish residents believe as much.
It doesn’t help that Barrett himself is not the contemplative type. He is a boxer, of course, trained to think of the head primarily as a target. “I’ve done a lot for the Travellers,” he says at one point, so perhaps his inarticulateness is the only thing saving him from being a pompous oaf.
After the Olympics, Barrett got married, moved to London, had a son—named after himself—and tried to win both the English and the Irish championships. (At least Olympic and European amateur boxers wear protective headgear, making the “sport” slightly less barbaric than the American variety.) The latter bouts are supposed to propel the narrative, and for boxing fans perhaps they will. But for filmgoers who have already been slugged this past year by The Hurricane, Play It to the Bone, and The Price of Glory, facing another round of blows seems needlessly cruel. CP