Men And Chicken (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Arrow Films) Running Time: 104 minutes approx.
“The humour on this island is pretty basic”
At the risk of sounding reductive the above quote from this jet black Danish comedy could apply to the film itself – that is until you look beyond the apparent Bottom meets League Of Gentlemen hybrid (hold that thought) and realise that there is an acerbic social satire driving it.
Written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, screenwriter of some noted high quality drama while his own projects are more provocative and esoteric, Men And Chicken introduces us to brothers Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) and Gabriel (David Dencik), whose father passes away. He leaves his sons a video tape in which he reveals that they were adopted and that their real father was a biologist
Gabriel track down their biological father to the island of Ork and the brothers set off to find him and learn about their real mothers, said to have died during childbirth. When they arrive at the abandoned sanitarium said to be their father’s home, they are greeted by three men who turn out to be their half brothers – Franz (Soren Malling), Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Josef (Nicolas Bro).
There is no question these five men are related, despite having their own personalities and levels of intellect, the giveaway being the cleft lip and facial disfigurements they all possess. A large nose, crooked teeth and a dislike for being interrupted are shared traits we can assume are inherited from their father, but what if anything, in their DNA came from their mothers? And why did they all die during childbirth?
It may not appear as such for the first half of this absurd outing but Jensen does have something to say which is clarified during the denouement to close the thoughts pondered in the narrated prologue. No doubt many would wonder why Jensen should go to such extremes to make this point but when you consider the alternative is didactic Hollywood schmaltz, this subversive approach suddenly makes sense.
Aside from their individual physical appearances, the five brothers all having interesting personality quirks which define them – Gabriel is a philosophy professor and is the smartest and most logical of the lot; Elias is forthright to the point of rudeness whilst also need to “relieve” himself of certain pressures at regular intervals of the day.
Franz gives the orders around the house and is very spiky in his conduct, along with a penchant for hitting people with stuffed animals; Gregor is very obedient and nervy, preferring his own company to others; and Josef can’t help but interpret everything he reads on a philosophical and sociological level.
They are also very violent towards each other, hence the earlier Bottom reference, with Jensen depicting the frequent brawling as pure comic slapstick, involving metal bath tubs, rolling pins and the aforementioned stuffed animals. Franz lost his job at the island’s kindergarten for beating a four-year-old boy with a stuffed fox!
Animals play a big part in the plot whilst remaining on the periphery of the main story aside room dropping a few subtle clues as to where this is all heading. I don’t want to spoil things by suggesting there is some misdirection afoot here but it will be open to interpretation as to which of the many possible outcomes you may have presumed will be revealed is the least comfortable.
The brothers are not the only ones on the island of Ork and despite all outward appearances, the “normal” locals also have a few skeletons in their closets. The brothers’ odd behaviour is a threat to the island’s gentle image, but the mayor Flemming (Ole Thestrup) lets them stay to keep the island’s population up. His daughter Ellen (Bodil Jørgensen) enjoys baking but hates her life, especially after Franz hit her with a stuffed beaver!
It all sounds Pythonesque once you break the elements down but Jensen has created a place where John Cleese and Co. wouldn’t go. While the aesthetic is gloomy, and grimy to accentuate the grotesque veneer perpetuated by the unappealing appearances of the main cast, the script is rather probing and thoughtful. At one point when they engage in a delicious deconstruction of the Bible, the tone recalls the existential pondering of Bergman at his most trenchant.
This isn’t a gag film per se but the dialogue can be quite funny, largely through the delivery of such unique characters. They can talk nonsense but seem coherent, discuss philosophy and be incisive yet still resolve their issues with violence. Jensen’s message is a simple one when it is finally underlined, the strong social conscience behind it eventually revealing itself to cleverly throw our preconceived notions back on us.
For those of us on this side of Scandinavia, the boldest facet about this film is the all star cast of faces familiar to us via the Nordic Noir TV shows and Mads Mikkelsen, now at home in Hollywood, taking on such openly grubby and aesthetically unpleasant roles as these. But therein lies the beauty of world cinema – the actors and bean counters aren’t so prissy about such things as Hollywood are.
The rewards are therefore on the screen for both the director and the audience. All of the cast, main and supporting inhabit their characters as if they were their own, and as unfair as it may be to single Mikkelsen out, as the biggest name, this does show his diversity and guts as an actor known for his appeal to the ladies.
Men And Chicken is an acquired taste, and certainly the mileage of the dark humour will vary between viewers. It borders on the arcane and the upsetting but has a deep resonance once the layers of superficiality have been peeled back. It is a film about confounding expectations and gets its message across BY confounding expectations.
For fans of offbeat cinema it would be fowl play if you missed this one!
Rating – *** ½
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