Abuse comes in many forms: physical, emotional and psychological being the most common. Bad enough as each of them are, when blended together into one miserable human being they can combine then irreparably destroy single souls and whole families. How can this happen?, wonder those of us fortunate to have been spared the tyranny of familial fear. Much of the answer lies in Peter Schøneau Fog’s courageous film that demonstrates once and for all the awful power of denial when the perpetrator is our loving dad.
The year is 1971, the location a small village close to the Norway/German border. The story opens with a heated father/mother argument. In this instance Henry (Jesper Asholt oozes into the role with quiet understatement and an eerie creepiness that make his milkman-as-molester entirely believable) wails to his long-suffering wife, Else (Hanne Hedekund), “I’m a bad man … I’m going to kill myself” before abandoning his already-in-bed family and heads down to the living room sofa to continue his blubbering chorus—incongruously accompanied by Schubert lieder.
With paper-thin walls these frequent, teary eruptions gnaw at the heart of eleven-year-old, Allan (Jannik Lorenzen astonishes with his wide-eyed performance of the adoring son who learns his own style of willful blindness at his “far’s” knee). To end the incessant sobs and keep Dad from making good on his threat, Allan sends his older sister, Sanne (as the battered then rebellious teenager, Julie Kolbeck convinces in every scene) down to the living room in her underwear. Once there, she slips under a blanket and provides comfort that relieves the unseeing Allan and fills Sanne with shame and disgust until a stream of a different sort releases her insecure dad’s self-destructive bent for another night.
Horrific as this is, Fog and cinematographer Harald Gunnar Paalgard show just enough of these incestuous moments to spark outrage, but never sink to cheap sensationalism that a flash of skin or orgasmic grunt might have been called for by less sensitive filmmakers. Sadly, Fog’s début feature is based on an autobiography by Erling Jepsen (Bo Hansen penned the taut screenplay) so must find just the right balance between the vérité of nonfiction and the need to condense the story into the confines of frames rather than unlimited pages.
Unconditional love drives Allan not only to unwittingly force his sister into heinous acts, he also takes it upon himself to lift Dad’s spirits by using every means at his disposal (praying for the death of Henry’s competitor—but missing the mark by a generation when his sometime playmate Nis dies; using a mask in an attempt to scare his hypochondriac Aunt Didde—Gitte Siem—into the grave then unexpectedly succeeds when she laughs herself off the planet at her nephew’s hijinks) in order to increase his father’s standing in the community. For when it comes to tear-producing eulogies, Henry is a master of unleashing the ducts.
Mingled in with the family passings (the final being the reclusive matriarch who perishes in a Götterdämmerung of flames when her house is torched and the exits are blocked …) is the sub-plot of Sanne’s struggle with her abuse, attempts to date and be “normal” (the taunt of “Daddy’s girl” is especially hurtful), then descent into madness and admission to Augustenberg—a warehouse for the mentally disturbed. Allan is coerced by Dad to accompany Sanne to a community dance where he is introduced to the facts of life and the joy of car sex. He willingly spies on his sister and sometime boyfriend Per (played by the willowy Sune Thomsen) who never gets to first base let alone score. Hours later, after spying son reports back that “maybe he took his willy out when I wasn’t watching” morphs into Per’s arrest, Allan’s look of sudden understanding as to how he’s been manipulated by his dad fills the screen with a visual intensity that, like the false j’accuse in Atonement (cross-reference below), lingers in memory long after the final frame.
Intermingled with all of the personal drama are relieving moments of kids just being kids: the “Ride of the Wheelbarrel” being a hilarious example. Fog has successfully found the balance between appalling acts of moral cowardice, the inability to act in the face of them and the hope that if only everyone is truly loved, then the world will be a better place. Let the conversation begin. JWR