BERLIN 2002: "Minor Mishaps" Major Player (Små Ulykker); Olesen Makes an Ambitious Debut
by Eddie Cockrell
(indieWIRE/02.13.02) -- American audiences currently enjoying Lone Scherfig's fine, if somewhat delayed, relationship dramedy "Italian for Beginners" -- please, Miramax, stop holding the Danish films -- will want to keep an eye out for the newest project from that film's veteran producer Ib Tardini, "Minor Mishaps." By turns somber and whimsically perceptive, the film's ensemble cast charts the complex interrelationships of one large Copenhagen family in the wake of the matriarch's untimely passing. As with Scherfig's film and a growing number of European productions that emphasize emotionally responsible realism over the hollow sentimentality common to most similarly themed U.S. studio releases, "Minor Mishaps" is a movie about day-to-day, life-and-death decisions but with the wisdom and courage not to take itself too seriously.
Following the violent off-screen death of his wife of 46 years Ulla, genial joker and hospital porter John (beloved Danish industry vet Jørgen Kiil) is at loose ends. Meanwhile, his brother Søren (Jesper Christensen, also in "Beginners" and the recent TV movie "Uprising"), already happily disabled with arthritic ankles, must grapple with the pronouncement from his wife Hanne (Karen-Lise Mynster) that she's having an affair. John's Haiku-loving eldest daughter Eva (Jannie Faurschou) has just moved back to town and decided that painting will be the latest in her long line of failed artistic endeavors, while middle son Tom (Henrik Prip), a successful yet overworked contractor, struggles in vain to find time for wife Lisbeth (Julie Wieth) and their two children. And then there's John's timid, tremulous youngest daughter Marianne (Maria Würgler Rich), who lives next door to her father and dotes on John to an extraordinary degree, while also searching for a meaningful relationship of her own.
Ambitious first-time director Annette K. Olesen has borrowed a page from Mike Leigh's playbook: the film was developed in collaboration with the actors and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson using Leigh's novel framework of empowering the talent to literally collaborate their characters into existence. The result is a movie not so much performed as lived, an engrossing family saga that incorporates jagged flashes of grim humor into the ever-expanding constellation of family dynamics. Plus, since each and every member of the principle cast had input into the story structure and situations, there is but one emotional loose end not tied up. (The intentional ambiguity of this plot thread is sure to provoke love-it-or-hate it reactions.)
"For most of us," remembers Olsen, "Leigh's method was completely unknown and it went beyond normal limits as to what we were taught of storytelling: First you have to know what you want to tell. We had no idea before some months of work." The kicker here is that the average moviegoer won't notice anything out of the ordinary, save a certain narrative airtightness that elevates the film from the pack with a heart-on-the-sleeve approach to family that is distinctly refreshing.
Though the acting is first-rate across the board, special mention should be made of Christensen, who bears a striking resemblance to the American character actor Ron Liebman, and likewise has the kind of authoritative presence that allows him to turn on a dime from tough to tender. But it is Rich's Marianne who has the most difficult task as the almost terminal wallflower of the family. Her catalogue of twitches and expressions, brave in the way the young Amanda Plummer approached many of her characters, walk a fine line between bathos and inspiration.
It will be a few days yet before the Berlin festival jury makes its decisions, and such august bodies aren't usually known for a fondness for comedies. Yet no matter its fate in the balloting, "Minor Mishaps" deserves major play.