Kristian Levring is one of the founding fathers of the Danish-born Dogme 95 movement, an experience that left him unafraid to take audiences out of their comfort zone. In his early addition to the avant-garde catalogue, The King is Alive (Dogme #4), the harsh landscape of the Namibian desert filled in for the familial fire-storms that were the centerpieces of films such as Trier’s The Idiots or Thomas Vinterberg’s Celebration. In his latest menace, Fear Me Not, which made its New York City premiere Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival, Levring has taken the dangerous fury of The King’s desert landscape and inverted it. The result is more Kubrick’s The Shinning than Trier’s The Kingdom, and suggests that Denmark’s serene facade as a socialized heaven is hiding some middle class torment. Levring doesn’t have to play by Dogme’s cinema verite rules to get the job done.
At the center of Levring’s domestic nightmare is Mikael, played by Dogme vet Ulrich Thomsen (Celebration), who is the embodiment of all things Danish. His life matches the Hans Wegner-inspired furniture — the job, the wife (Paprika Steen), and the daughter — all click neatly into place. So, like all good looking successful men who live in the suburbs, he’s miserable; a condition not helped by taking a sabbatical and having nothing to do but row his boat and stare off into space. When a friend who works for a large pharmaceutical company off-handedly mentions an experimental new drug to treat depression, Mikael begs to become a guinea pig.
“Side effects?” He asks out of feigned concern. No, of course not, his friend assures him even though he is reluctant to include him in the study.
But the pills seem to work. At least until Mikael finds himself driving through the woods with the lights off, forcing an underage girl to expose her breasts, and punching strangers. But are these side effects or boredom? Or perhaps something else is bothering our Danish friend. A trip to his childhood home provides some hints into his psyche, which in typical Dogme mode might be related to a family secret from the past.
What separates Fear Me Not from becoming nothing more than a Jekyll and Hyde for the Prozac-era is the calm way it unravels. Mikael’s behavior inspires neither sympathy nor outrage, and mirrors the film’s steady pacing. Even during its unfriendliest moments it never unravels into the horror-movie rhythms we’ve all been trained to expect. Levring’s use of setting —the stillness of the lake that rests outside the family home; the pristine kitchen; long takes which let us stare into Mikael’s face; create a calm exterior for the Namibian sandstorm that is tearing his sanity apart.
If a lot of this doesn’t sound stylistically, or thematically, divergent from the Dogme tradition that’s understandable. Certainly the faces are familiar — Thomson and Steen leave no viewer hungry for intensity — and the lack of music is indeed a borrowed technique. What’s different here is the level of control Levring wields over the setting and his cast. It’s an even-handed approach that inspires more questions than judgments, and lacks the cathartic moments that Dogme films tend to revolve around, and in this case, doesn’t need.
Fear Me Not plays again tomorrow afternoon at 1:30 p.m.