Published February 1, 2000
Michael Sragow, writing in salon.com, says that Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s lovely little film, Mifune, “outlines the emptiness of upward mobility in an age of unapologetic capitalism.” It is one of those observations that tell you far more about the critic than they do about the film, which is not at all about “capitalism,” unapologetic or otherwise, but about the power of love and family and the little heroisms of everyday life. I don’t know if the Danish “Dogma 95” movement, according to whose canons of cinematic austerity this film was made, prohibits fatuous theorizing about “capitalism” along with special effects and other kinds of fakery, but if it doesn’t it should.
The title alludes to the great Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune, parts of whose performance in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai the hero of this film, a Danish businessman called Kresten Jensen (Anders W. Berthelsen), enacts in a ridiculously impromptu get-up involving mops and broomsticks and saucepans for the entertainment of his retarded brother Rud (Jesper Asholt). Rud, who is smarter than he looks, first calls our attention to the heroism of Kresten when he is asked who Mifune is: “He’s strong and he never gives up,” replies Rud. “He’s Kresten.” In fact, the idea of Kresten as hero is almost as ridiculous as his appearance impersonating Mifune, but by this point in the film we have been prepared to accept that heroism can be both ridiculous and real, just as Shakespeare continually persuades us that love can be both ridiculous and real.
Kresten may not be a knight in shining armor, but he is stronger than we thought he would be when we met him. As the film opens, he is a corporate high-flyer who has just married the boss’s daughter, Claire (Sofie Grabol) and told her—and her father—that he has no family. Almost as soon as he is married, he gets a call informing him that his own father, in Lolland in southern Denmark, has died.
“Lolland?” says Claire. “But you haven’t got a dad.”
“I do after all,” he replies sheepishly. And a brother too. When Claire asks why she wasn’t told about that, Kresten says: “Because he’s an idiot.” He tells Claire that he will be gone for a day or two and leaves to sort out his father’s affairs.
But from this unpromising beginning, Kresten begins to make some moral progress. At first intent on selling off the farm while farming Rud out to a home of some sort, he soon re-establishes the bond of love with Rud that he had forgotten about and finds himself staying on at the farm. He hires a housekeeper, Liva (Iben Hjejle)—who, as we know and he does not, is a prostitute on the run from a stalker—to look after the two of them and promptly falls in love with her. Claire visits unannounced and, surprised by both Rud and Liva, savagely belabors the former, who cowers in terror beneath her blows. Kresten tells Liva that she is an old girlfriend who has been stalking him, unwittingly telling her truth with his lie. But after Claire has stormed out, the ever-perceptive Rud shyly asks: “Did she hit you too, Kresten?”
Claire sends him a tape recording telling him that she wants a divorce. His new father-in-law fires him. Liva’s bratty little brother Bjarke (Emil Tarding), having been expelled from the private school she has been sending him to, turns up at the farm and promptly dubs Rud and Kresten “f***ing peasants,” while Liva herself tries to take up prostitution again and succeeds in getting Kresten beaten up by several of her prospective tricks. Later, when she and Kresten finally reach some kind of romantic understanding, a gang of Liva’s girlfriends show up and, thinking him a rapist, beat Kresten up again. It begins to seem some kind of achievement for him to stick it out at the farm in spite of all this trouble.
The only problem is that at some point well before Kresten is beaten up by Liva’s prostitute friends, it has become rather incredible that he seems to know nothing of her past, especially as he tells her that “Out here in the country we have no secrets.” It is certainly true that Rud, a sort of holy fool, seems to know all the secrets, and that Kresten’s own secrets are ruthlessly exposed. “Why didn’t I just tell them my brother was a cretin and my father was rotting away in a dump in Lolland?” he asks himself, distraught. But the film’s major flaw is its failure to confront its own most explosive secret. Even if Kresten is choosing to ignore what he must know by now, the film should present us with that choice and what it means to Kresten. Instead it treats Liva’s profession as a mere irrelevancy—which is a considerable stretch, one would have thought, even in Scandanavia—when it comes time to wrap things up with a too-facile ending.
For Kresten, Liva, Rud and Bjarke become, just as they would if they were in a Hollywood movie, an instant happy family. But in its context this absurdity is no more grating than the marriages at the end of a Jane Austen novel. Its point is not to look real itself but to stand for the reward which comes to those who triumph over adversity. As Liva puts it, speaking out of her own bitter experience, “Life is one big turd that you have to take a bite out of every day. Get used to it. Never feel so sorry for yourself that you piss on other people.” Or, as Rud sums up the heroism of Mifune: be strong and never give up. It may be a poor and scatological sort of heroism, but it is the most heroic that it is ever vouchsafed most of us to be, capitalism or no capitalism.