Mifune (Mifunes Sidste Sang) (Denmark, 1999) ** 1/4
Directed by Soren Kragh-Jacobsen. Written by Kragh-Jacobsen and Story by Kragh-Jacobsen. Photography, Anthony Dod Mantle. Editing, Valdis Oskarsdottir. Music by Nulle Og Verdensorkestret. Cast: Anders W. Berthelsen (Kresten), Iben Hjejle (Liva), Jesper Asholt (Rud), Sofie Grabol (Claire), Emil Tarding (Bjarke), Anders Hove (Gerner) and Paprika Steen (Pernille). Produced by Birgitte Hald and Morten Kaufmann. A Sony Pictures Classics release. In Danish with subtitles. 99 minutes. R (language, violence)
Sometime in 1995 A.D. a bunch of the boys (Danish moviemakers) were whooping it up in Copenhagen. Whether in merriment, seriousness, put-on, or all the above, they came up with a sort of collective, Dogme 95. It was followed by a serious manifesto, the full reading of which is a howl. It is a set of "indisputable rules" which they called The Vow Of Chastity. As I see it, it was a cinematic "back to nature" micro-movement whose purpose was to purify film by refusing certain techniques and conventions. Put differently, it was a neo-Luddite attitude which, I suspect, was a mix of tongue-in-cheekness, getting publicity, and good intentions.
The Dogme contains 10 rules, a la Moses : Location shooting only. Sound and image must be simultaneously recorded. Hand-held cameras only. Color film only. No special lighting, no optical work or filters. No "superficial action" (murders, weapons, etc.). Film must take place here and now. Genre movies are a no-no. Academy 35mm format only. Directors must not be credited.
"Mifune" is also listed as "Mifune Dogme 3" because it is the third officially Dogme acredited movie made by following the Ten Commandments. It was preceded by Lars Trier's "The Idiots" and Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration."
The plot. In Copenhagen, yuppieish Kresten marries Claire, the daughter of his tycoon boss. The wedding night has Claire demonstrate sexual bliss in the longest and loudest way. It gets a 9 in non-porno film history. (Why not a 10? Because one should always allow for future records).
An urgent phone call informs Kresten that his father has died in Lolland (Denmark's southermost island). The young financier's presence is required. It comes as a shock to Claire since Kresten had declared that he had no family at all. His hurried excuse is that he had been alienated from his people for many years. He promises to be back in 48 hours.
He (and his wife's BMW) reach the island by ferry-boat. The family property turns out to be a dilapidated mess of a farm and farmhouse. The inhabitants are Daddy's corpse and Rud, Kresten's mentally defective older brother. Among Rud's many peculiarities are a conviction that space people are landing and a refusal to take showers. He is kind of sweet but needs care and supervision.
Kresten's calls in all sorts of excuses to his wife to explain that he will be delayed. Since Rud cannot be left alone (but one wonders what the incapacitated father had been doing for him) Kresten advertises in a Copenhagen paper for a housekeeper.
In most unlikely record time the classified ad is answered by Liva, who shows up pronto. She is (but of course does not disclose it) one of a small group of upscale call-girls who seem to have mostly kinky clients. Liva plies her trade out of necessity: to pay private-school fees for her unruly young brother. But she has to flee the big city because of problems with her pimp, with an irate client, and with a threatening, anonymous caller.
That's the story so far. Will there be mutual attraction between Kresten and Liva? Are there some nasty neigbors around? Will Claire get suspicious and show up? Or Liva's fellow-workers? Is there a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Shall we meet Liva's brother Bjarke? Will he and Rud become fast friends? Should we expect a happy ending?
If writer-director Soren Kragh-Jacobsen was looking for an original storyline he has another look coming. If he wanted to apply Dogme 95's Decalogue to his film, he was relatively successful. I repeat, relatively. For example, the handheld camera bit. Time and again I was sure that the steadiness of some images could not have been achieved without a tripod. Anotherr example: the anti-genre bit. The affair between Liva and Kresten falls squarely in the prostitute with a heart of gold category. The director bit. Dogme movies always get around the non-crediting of the director. And so on. But the film does hew to the lighting part of the Commandments and the avoidance of technical devices and special effects.
Kragh-Jacobsen does admit "that he bent the rule on using available props a bit --pruning a few bushes in an overgrown farm garden and borrowing a few chickens from the farm next door."
Along traditional criteria, the performers are the major beneficiaries of the Dogma. They are all suprisingly good, and our unfamiliarity with them makes us see real people rather than performers. Only one player may be known to us, Iben Hjejle (pronounced EE-ben YI-leh) who made her American debut opposite John Cusack in "High Fidelity."
The film's title is not all that esoteric. In Danish it is "Mifune's Last Song." From their youth, Kresten and Rud, fans of samurai films (which Rud calls "samovar") have played a game in which the famous Japanese actor was impersonated by Kresten, complete with Japanese-type grunts.
Despite weaknesses, the movie's rough look and "faux naive" strategy does give it a nice succession of believable slice-of-life scenes in the "what you see is what you get" vein. The camera and microphone constantly observe and record without providing any explanations or comments. It's a kind of hybrid: staged but not elaborated cinema-verite with a fitting uncomplexity of characters. As it stands until now, Dogme 95 is more of a shaggy dogma than anything else, but it could be a plus in the most unlikely possibility that it might rub off on some movie-making, even microscopically, and reduce today's cinema's suffocating reliance on gimmickry.
"Mifune" was Denmark's nominee for foreign language Oscars. At the Berlin Film Festival it won the Silver Bear. The top prize, the Golden Bear, went to "The Thin Red Line."