Catching Up with the Danes: When Will "Love" and "Fear" See the Light of Theatrical Projection?
by Anthony Kaufman
The 2003 Sundance Film Festival was studded with a spectacular, innovative and stunning cinema -- from Denmark. While others praised U.S. breakouts such as "American Splendor," "thirteen," and "The Station Agent," this journalist's most dizzyingly memorable experiences occurred while watching Thomas Vinterberg's "It's All About Love" and Nicolas Winding Refn's "Fear X" -- both which have yet to be released in U.S. theaters.
The festival also showcased Susanne Bier's under-loved "Open Hearts" (released by Newmarket), Jesper Jargil's Dogme 95 doc "The Purified" (shown on the Sundance Channel), and "New Scenes from Amerika," a documentary by Jorgen Leth (which played recently at New York's American Museum of the Moving Image). But "It's All About Love" and "Fear X" have been shielded from North American eyes since their Park City premieres nearly 18 months ago.
The good news is that both films will be released by the end of the year, according to sources close to both productions. Focus Features, which acquired "It's All About Love" at Sundance, promises a limited platform theatrical release in 2004. (By the time the film opens, though, Vinterberg's new film "Dear Wendy" [http://www.trust-film.dk/off_vis_film.asp?id=119], the story of a boy and his pistol scripted by Lars von Trier, will already be showing in Denmark theaters.)
After languishing without a distributor, "Fear X" is finally sealing a deal, precipitated by indieWIRE's mention of the film in its 2003 Best Undistributed List. "Two days after the indieWIRE article, we got five offers on the table," says Refn, who has just finished a sequel to his 1996 debut "Pusher" and is already prepping "Pusher III." Sales company Moviehouse Entertainment confirms a likely fall '04 U.S. release for "Fear X."
But why has it taken so long for these two once highly anticipated films to reach the American market?
"Unfortunately," says Refn, "I think a lot of the distributors are built on fear, fear of not getting the right one, of not doing the right thing, so everybody becomes paralyzed in making a decision quickly that's a little more challenging. And you can't work with art that way," he adds. "Art is gambling."
At Sundance 2003, Vinterberg, director of the acclaimed Dogme DV production "The Celebration," confirmed his new film's roll of the dice. "Of course, this film leaves some people disoriented. It's an unusual film. It's a film that people say they haven't seen before," he said. "And I couldn't have done it another way."
Still, both Danish productions minimize their risk by being shot in the English language with recognizable U.S. stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, and Sean Penn in "Love" and John Turturro in "Fear." Though this may have backfired in the case of Vinterberg's film: One of the reasons "It's All About Love" may have been delayed is a lack of commitment from its Hollywood talent: at press conferences abroad, Phoenix has come across as indignant and annoyed.
But no matter: the pleasures of these two films are not the complacent joys of cause-and-effect American narratives to which most audiences are accustomed, anyway. Both movies willfully represent the kind of ambitious, perplexing, and visionary work that used to galvanize cineastes in the 1960s. Masterpieces or messes? You decide. (And you should be given the chance to decide.)
In fact, these recent postmodern Danish pictures, along with the far-more-contentious and polarizing "Dogville" (currently playing), prove just how much the Danes have tapped into a cinema that is as complex and intriguing, if not more so, than their Dogme 95 gimmick -- which is still bearing pungent fruit (see the recent Berlinale hit "In Your Hands") -- from just a few years ago.
If Von Trier's "Dogville" -- with its three-hour running time, searing misanthropic message, and Brechtian theatrical devices -- can be turned into a cinephile's must-see event and make over $719,000 in a month, why can't Vinterberg's anti-Dogma "It's All About Love," a romantic, sci-fi, fantasia about cloning, ice skating, and global disintegration (with a breathtakingly, beautiful snow-capped ending shot by the Dane's in-house maestro Anthony Dod Mantle)? Or Refn's "Fear X," a mesmerizing trip into the mind of a mall security guard searching for his wife's murderer (which includes such effective -- and marketable -- contributions from Hubert Selby Jr, who co-wrote the script, and Brian Eno, who provides the eerie score)? Granted, neither stars Nicole Kidman.
But U.S. distributors have not shied away from recent Danish cinema; an entire slate of impressive Danish films will hit North America in the wake of "Dogville": including Jorgen Leth and Von Trier's witty filmmaking chess match "The Five Obstructions" (from Koch Lorber) and Christoffer Boe's visually stunning boy-meets-girl puzzle-like debut "Reconstruction" (from Palm Pictures). Also upcoming are Anders Thomas Jensen's Sweeney Todd-inspired "The Green Butchers" (Newmarket) and founding Dogme member Kristian Levring's "The Intended" (IFC).
"These films can be quite successful, if they're handled correctly," Refn says. "Nowadays filmmaking has become formulated to a manual, and audiences hunger for something that goes against what they're used to seeing." As evidence, he cites the Salt Lake City public premiere for "Fear X" nearly a year and half ago. "It went down so well," he says. "I knew this was going to work."
But at a particularly frustrating low point last year, Refn and his producer Henrik Danstrup had decided to release the film themselves in U.S. theaters. "If you can't join them," he says, "we were going to beat them."
Now, looking forward to working closely with a distributor, Refn says, "'Fear X' was definitely a lesson in how to deal with the U.S. market and how the press works and what kind of press works. We really need to consider the most important markets and how to get those countries onboard first," Refn continues. "A lot of people just want to say 'No.' It's the easiest thing for people to say. Even good distributors just want to say 'No,' and we just have to make them say 'Yes.'"