7The Oscar-nominated film from Danish writer-director Tobias Lindhol, A War (Krigen) probably stands as the most subdued entry into the mix of foreign language films vying for the gold statuette this weekend. Split into two distinct settings, a small base of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan and a military tribunal back home in Denmark, the film follows a commanding officer on the field who must later face consequences of a rash decision during a firefight that ends in civilian deaths.

Everything about Claus (Pilou Asbæk) seems admirable though not necessarily sensible. He is invested in his men while also dedicated to what seems to be a pointless mission of patrolling the IED-filled desert near their base. After one of his soldiers dies, he reminds the survivors of their mission: It’s about winning over civilians and protecting them so they might rebuild. It’s not much of a speech or a mission. When one traumatized soldier refuses to go back outside of their short-walled base, Claus doesn’t hesitate to put his own safety on the line by leading the patrols himself. He also has a family back home, a wife (Tuva Novotny) and three young children who struggle with the mundane without their father at home.


As with his previous film, 2012’s A Hijacking, A War is intelligently edited to focus on characters and create barriers in their realities. There are long periods spent with Claus’ family or on the base. Lindhol never even bothers with inter-cutting phone calls between husband and wife, staying true to the setting he has put the viewer in and enhancing a sense of separation. Even at the opening, when we meet a platoon on patrol and Claus at base, the editing (expertly modulated by Adam Nielsen) is carefully paced to highlight the chaos and humanity of the front, while in the base the troops are remotely referred to by Claus with numbers. This is the first reveal of Claus’ frustration with having to stay in the base while leading troops on their patrol. Just as he used editing to highlight the behavior of corporate suits and a captain whose cargo ship has been hijacked by Somali pirates, Lindhol presents an incredible example of how key the film’s editing is to establishing its message and character development.

This continues into the fateful firefight that ultimately sends Claus home, the mystery of the location of the attackers only enhanced by Lindhol’s tendency to choose a perspective and stick with it. This style makes the struggle to reconcile the unknowable truth of what happened with the stories told through evidence and testimony feel genuine. The film is grounded by the unrelenting handheld camera work of Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. Even during the trial, the film has a feel for chaos normally reserved for characterizing the battlefield.


Asbæk’s leading performance is also outstanding. The viewer will understand Claus is still haunted by every event that has happened until the film’s final, revealing frame. Lindhol sparingly leans on close-ups and uses no flashbacks, much less any exposition, to reveal Claus’ thoughts or struggle with his conscience, to emphasize Claus struggle. Instead, it is in Asbæk’s low-key performance filled with slight ticks of hesitation and apprehension.

Ultimately, what Lindhol is trying to show is how the chaos of war is more to blame for the tearing apart of humanity than those wrapped up in it. He is careful not to characterize the Taliban as people as much by their cruel acts. Save for an encounter with a solitary member of the Taliban, the enemy comes across as an unseen boogeyman who strikes at night and leaves bloodied bodies of innocent children in its wake. As we can tell by the last half of the movie, the enemy is the military and a system that ineffectively polices itself. But with Lindhol’s concern for humanity above all, no one comes across as a bad guy, just people caught up in a machine run by an enemy as faceless as the vicious Taliban of A War.

Hans Morgenstern

A War is in Danish with English subtitles, runs 115 minutes and is rated R. It opens in Florida exclusively on Friday, Feb. 26, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It may be currently playing in your area outside of Florida or coming soon. For other play dates, visit this link. Magnolia Pictures provided all images in this post and a preview link for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

fly_poster_UK_WebIt was Carl Jung who theorized all genders have an opposite within. Men have a female side and women have a male side. He said part of what drives the unconscious mind was the anima and animus. If ever there was a male director who desperately wanted to bring life to his anima, it may be Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. And if there was ever proof at how futile his efforts are in tapping into the female side of his unconscious it lies there in his filmography. But dammit if he does not strive for it with a brutal honesty.

Though many have written him off as a misogynist, von Trier clearly has sympathy for women. Breaking the Waves (1996), still (maybe sentimentally for this writer) his strongest film, made a star of Emily Watson. She played a virginal bride whose husband (Stellan Skarsgård) grows distant. She turns to whoring and then implicitly rises to the status of saint. In Dancer In the Dark (2000), our heroine (Björk) escapes into musical sequences to come to terms with an unavailable father to her son as she gradually goes blind and meets the cruelest sort of end one could imagine. Most recently, Kirsten Dunst became his anima surrogate in the over-indulgent Melancholia (‘Melancholia’ offers intimate, if flawed, look at the end of the world), which explored the depths of a depressed woman (Dunst) but short-changed her grounded sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a giant planet grew ever closer to earth to swallow it whole.

In even more sexually explicit films, there is Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and Antichrist (2009). Either victimized or self-destructive, women are quite doomed in von Trier’s universe, burdened by their anatomy instead of empowered by it. But he’s far from finished exploring female sexuality. It’s fitting that his most primal and focused of his women-centric movies is the epic-length, four-and-a-half-hour long Nymph()maniac (parentheses for extra evocative effect).

Nymphomaniac 16 photo by Christian Geisnaes

As one can expect from title and that () in place of the o, von Trier’s unapologetic heavy hand is once again all over this film, which, in the U.S. has been divided into two films: Nymph()maniac Volume I and Nymph()maniac Volume II. It has also been more than cut in half for stateside consumption, it has also been shortened by a half-hour. One might assume it is a move by von Trier to protect the more puritanical American audience from explicit sex overload because there is a lot of it in this movie. To his detriment, he is a condescending director, who would consider such a notion, as  his coerciveness once again mutes the impact of his theme. However, the film does have its strengths, albeit within a mixed bag of genuine effort.

The film is not rated, as it would have never earned anything less than an NC-17 rating. Sexuality is ever-present in the film. Even the U.S. version has a few scenes of penetration (body doubles were reportedly used). No anecdote is absent of sex or the implication of it (even references to fly fishing). This uncompromising effort by von Trier is by design. He does not only stay true to the title but creates an implicit effect that will indeed place the audience in the title character’s body. Before the end of the film, the viewer will become numb to the sex on-screen. This is actually one of the film’s strengths, as it draws the audience into the titular protagonist’s world.

Gainsbourg, in her third major role in a row for von Trier plays Joe. After a slithering camera silently turns a few brick walls and gutters dripping melting snow, we find her bruised and unconscious in an alleyway. We are then sonically assaulted with the film’s black metal theme song (there’s that heavy hand). Nymphomaniac 14 photo by Christian GeisnaesAn older man (Skarsgård) helps her up and insists he call an ambulance. She threatens to run away if he calls any authority, so he offers her tea at his place. He then tucks her in his bed where she proceeds to tell him a bedtime story all about her self-described nymphomania (a long out-dated psychological disorder on par with hysteria) and what “a bad human being” she has been.

The man, who later reveals his name as Seligman, for the most part seems rather unstartled by accounts of her sexuality, which begins with her first memory, when, as a 2-year-old, “I first discovered my cunt.” He can’t help but divert her narrative to his experiences as a fly fisherman and goes on about the “nymph” fly. She pauses silently, as if to say, “I don’t know what to say to that” and carries on with her story. This disconnect between the characters could be relevant or not. Maybe von Trier is subverting his own ham-fistedness, as Joe’s pregnant pauses easily invite laughter from the audience.

She later shares an anecdote where she took a challenge from a friend to try and have with sex with as many men as possible during one train ride. The film flashes back to a teenage Joe (Stacy Martin) and her childhood friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) as they plot and seduce for a prize bag of “chocolate sweeties.” Sex does not make the reward but candy. It’s significant to the gradual desensitization of intercourse for Joe. The two childhood friends soon form a club where the pair and other school girls chant “mea maxima vulva” while masturbating in a group. They swear to have sex with many different partners and never fall in love with them. It’s an act of rebellion against what they consider the oppressive notion of love.

Nymphomaniac 17 photo by Christian Geisnaes

There’s meaning in everything in von Trier’s world. Forgiving the teenage notion of “mea maxima vulva,” the idea that Seligman must connect her stories to fly fishing and his obsession with Fibonacci numbers are a bit harder to forgive. But, we can hope it’s by design. Joe hardly entertains his theories (and maybe von Trier would probably not forgive my anima allusions). She just carries on with her stories, each one divided by title cards, including “The Compleat Angler” and “Delirium.”

The transference between Joe and Seligman becomes quite apparent. Von Trier, as ever, gives us scenes that are choppily cut and highlight silences between characters more than dialogue. The internal world is always more interesting to von Trier, and this is his way to emphasize reflection and thought. This is a contemplative film. It mirrors what may be happening between screen and viewer. It’s as amazingly candid as some might think it lurid.

One of the easier chapters to swallow is simply titled “Mrs. H” also features some rather cruel humor. A rampaging wife (Uma Thurman in spectacular high gear) enters Joe’s apartment right after her cheating husband (Hugo Speer) has appeared with his suitcases, ready to move in with Joe. Nymphomaniac 06 photo by ZentropaThe missus has brought their three young sons to introduce them to the woman who has destroyed their family and takes them on a tour of Joe’s apartment, all the way to “Daddy’s whoring bed.” Joe just stands there, silent and unapologetic. It’s one of the film’s more honestly hilarious moments because it’s like one of those revenge letters by a woman scorned, which often go viral on the Internet.

But it’s a rather cheap joke that more importantly culminates in the usual coldness from Joe, who once seems to care less about emotional involvement over the physical act of sex. Men are replaceable to Joe. Well… except for one. Shia LaBeouf plays Jerôme, the man who once happened to take her virginity in three thrusts (plus five more in the behind, spelled out in numbers that are burned on the image, hence the  Fibonacci number). He comes to matter to her because she denies him sex for much of their second life together, when he rather surreptitiously reappears in her life as her boss.

The most sincerely accomplished and, finally insightful, of the chapters must be “The Little Organ School,” which comes toward the end of Volume I. Once again, Seligman illuminates Joe’s account with a theoretical notion, this time the musical one of polyphony. And again, Joe turns the story back to herself, noting three particularly distinct love affairs during a time at the height of her sexual escapades, where she was bedding an average of 10 men a day. Our director, in turn, works in montages within a triple split-screen, featuring Jerôme at the center. It’s another rather overt move by von Trier, but it also reveals a complexity in this woman’s sexuality rarely represented so vividly and powerfully in the film. It also allows for a rare moment of emotional illumination of this woman, who may indeed have a human, beating heart and a desire to be understood.

Nymphomaniac 08 photo by Zentropa

Returning to the notion of anima and animus, it’s not incidental that Joe has a name more often associated with men. It hints at one of the more interesting premises in the film that offers up many ideas surrounding sex to varying effect. There’s one rather witty scene where Joe flawlessly parallel parks for a frazzled Jerôme who insists the gap between two cars is too small for his vehicle. So much for this idea, Germany.

Yet, as this film is but a “Volume I,” it feels incomplete when we get a sort of cliffhanger of an ending that would have actually worked quite ingeniously as a finale to the film had it been a movie focused on Joe’s trouble with feelings and sex. Still lingering of course is the mystery that put Joe in the street, not to mention what role Seligman has to play beyond fun house mirror to her tales of perverse sexual behavior.

It becomes difficult to make up one’s mind about this film without the completed vision. Maybe it will let down because, so far— barring some hopeful moments toward the end— it mostly feels like the usual forceful von Trier. Joe still has to finish that long story she began, so we can find out the why and the what in “Volume II.” Also, could von Trier be pandering to U.S. audiences too much? Has he compromised not only by dropping almost a half-hour of (what some reports have said) of more sexual images and some extended dialogue? Has he also gone too far in following the annoying trend of several recent Hollywood movies of allowing his film to be chopped in half for easier consumption at the cost of complete story flow? Beneath these kinks and complaints, is a rather intelligent and bold concept few filmmakers dare to unabashedly explore: a rather taboo subject, not just for mainstream cinema, but a male director: a woman and the power of her sex. Nymph()maniac Volume I stands as an interesting though mostly imperfect film that teases there may be some hope for the follow up, out next month.

Hans Morgenstern

Nymphomaniac Volume I runs 118 minutes and is not rated (it would have been an easy NC-17 had it been presented to the MPAA for a rating). It opened this past weekend in South Florida in Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema, O Cinema and the Tower Theater. It is also available on demand, but it’s a beautiful big screen film. Note: Nymph()maniac Volume II will see release in April. Here’s that trailer, which bodes some hope for the questions brought up by this review:

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

A Royal Affar - poster artToo often, period films are often dismissed as “costume drama.” This reductive perspective does a disservice to a genre of cinema that, in the right hands, can offer history that illuminates the present as much as recreate the past. Recently, independent movie studios have brought some amazing period films focused on the late 18th century to U.S. art houses.  Mozart’s Sister re-imagined the sister of the child prodigy as an ahead-of-her-time go-getter (review). Farewell My Queen focused on the skittish malaise of Marie Antoinette as the ruling class hoarded their riches while peasants starved, a prescient drama considering all the talk of the increasing divide of the financial classes in today’s age (I could not help but review it in tandem with the documentary the Queen of Versailles). Though the stories of these films take place during the end of the Age of Enlightenment, they also seem to have a knack for illuminating society in today’s current time.

Now comes the Danish film A Royal Affair, recently announced as a Best Foreign Language contender for the Oscar® (it lost to Amour during for the Golden Globes in the same category [my review for Amour comes next week]). Let the title not misinform you, this film explores much more than a queen cheating on her king with one of his subjects. The drama may be between the German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), the queen of Denmark, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), and her man-child king, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) for whom the doctor was hired to tend to, but this triangle only offers the human backdrop for the larger story. Director Nikolaj Arcel uses humor and sexual tension peppered with the conflict of ideas of the Enlightenment (or the Age of Reason) versus the church to create a dynamic film that maintains a brisk pace, despite its two-hour-15-minute runtime.

Beyond the tension of the triangle there are those hovering in the corners of the drama. These are people more interested in maintaining power than new ideas of human rights, one of the accepted wisdoms of Rousseau, a writer Struensee and Caroline both enjoy reading. Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander in A ROYAL AFFAIR, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.Christian’s mother Juliane Marie (Trine Dyrholm) constantly plots her control over her son and manipulates one God-fearing handmaiden who tends to the Queen to onerous effect. Meanwhile, the lawmakers and money grubbers on the council use Christian for his disinterest in what seems mere bureaucracy to their own advantage.

The control of the court over free thought was so strong that when Caroline, the daughter of the Prince of Wales, arrives at the palace set to marry Christian, some of her books are confiscated, as they are censored by Danish law. It is a tragic moment considering she is first established as an educated young woman, who learns fluent Danish before the arranged marriage. She also seems excited about marrying a king, until she meets the man who introduces himself by playing peekaboo from behind a tree. His attitude brings to mind Tom Hulce playing Mozart in Amadeus. Christian has no manners even in his gait and enjoys hopping around with his dog above talking with his new wife (Følsgaard won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at last year’s Berlin Film Festival).

When Christian leaves for a long tour of Europe and does not come back, Struensee, a well-known doctor who works in the town, is hired to cure Christian of his madness. In a series of witty scenes, Struensee will show the power of a dog whisperer to coax Christian to show some responsibility. 492023_largeThough Christian remains a sort of wild creature of Id, he ends up admiring his doctor so much that he even mimics Struensee’s movements when they both stretch after a run. Praise for Mikkelsen should not be underplayed, as he embodies Struensee with both noble restraint and a comfortable frankness in ease that carries a refreshing air. I last saw him playing the mute, one-eyed savage in Valhalla Rising, a profoundly different creature.

There are many dense, loaded scenes throughout a Royal Affair that never linger too long and push the action along while illuminating enlightened thinking and its repercussion on human behavior. When people are repressed, there’s often a tension ready to explode. One of the more dramatic moments occurs before Struensee arrives, when Caroline gives birth to Frederick VI. As she screams while pushing during delivery, the king’s tutor tells her, “A true queen delivers in silence and with dignity.” She responds by yelling louder in the direction of the tutor, as she continues to push. It’s a sly symbolic and visceral moment of the old vision versus the enlightened spirit, repressed in Caroline at this point in the film.

As Struensee makes progress with Christian, the king asks him to see to his wife’s growing depression. Like any good doctor, Struensee, who also seems to show a grasp of psychology, uses a different approach for the intellectual Caroline. Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen in ‘A Royal Affair.’ Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.They share thoughts on Rousseau, and he lends her the books he has brought to the palace. But it’s not all chit-chat. He also prescribes that she ride horseback. She dismisses it as a “clumsy” exercise. He replies with a twinkle in his eye, “Because you ride side-saddle.” With the next brisk cut, Caroline is running a horse like no tomorrow, bliss— and maybe some sexuality— all over her grinning face.

A Royal Affair does much to maintain pace and balance while keeping things interesting on both a dramatic and intellectual level. As Struensee and the queen exchange thoughts you cannot help but wonder where enlightenment and reason has gone in today’s time. Lines like, “Who is more disturbed? The king or someone who believes the earth was made in six days?” have an obvious purpose to rile up such thoughts.

The film’s drama lies in such disparate ways of thinking and how it affects society. Enlightened thinkers like Rousseau and Struensee called for a humanitarianism that should, in the end, benefit everyone. Struensee’s advice to the king encourages him to find an interest in ruling. Mikkel Boe Følsgaard and Mads Mikkelsen in A ROYAL AFFAIR, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.It becomes something more than hoarding riches while squeezing every last drop out of the citizenry. But along with it comes a naiveté, as the movie so gradually reveals. As the trio grows blissfully close on social reforms, Struensee and the queen grow soulfully close. Those on the king’s court more interested in power will learn how adapt and take advantage of the system and undermine it.

The tragic unraveling happens at as brisk a pace as it is all set up. Though the film is long, it remains efficient throughout and never dialogue-heavy and meandering. Scenes on average last maybe a minute and the dialogue always has an illuminating character while also pushing the action along.

Of course as a “costume drama,” one must consider how Arcel captures the era, and he does so with exquisite detail. The lighting always seems natural, from scenes in sun-drenched rooms to those in candlelight. The cinematography is often sensitive and intimate. Alicia Vikander in ‘A Royal Affair.’ Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.The shallow focus never calls too much attention to itself, but rather illuminates the atmosphere. The art direction is always much more than superficial. There are dark, unlit rooms for dark times. In early scenes, the brilliant colors of the carriages contrasted with the rat-infested grime of the street, reminds the viewer of the class tension of the era.

From acting to art direction and story that transcends melodrama, A Royal Affair is a smart, well-paced movie with ideas and a sense of drama. On an all-encompassing level, the film deserves the recognition it has garnered. As luscious as it is, its only fault may be that it is all too perfect and precisely executed. However, it captures the tension between ideas of the Enlightenment and religion while maintaining a human sense of drama like no other period film I have ever seen.

Hans Morgenstern


A Royal Affair is Rated R (expect sex and period brutality of torture and be-headings), runs 137 min. and is in Danish and French with English subtitles. Magnolia Pictures provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It opens in South Florida at the following theaters on Friday, Jan. 18:

Tower Theater, Miami
O Cinema, Miami Shores
Bill Cosford Cinema, Coral Gables
South Beach 18, Miami Beach
Gateway 4, Fort Lauderdale
Living Room Cinema, Boca Raton
Movies of Delray 5, Delray Beach
Movies at Lake Worth, Lake Worth
Lake Worth Playhouse, Lake Worth
Update: A Royal Affair will screen for two nights, 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Jan. 29 and 31.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)