Mads Mikkelsen is by far the biggest actor in Denmark at the moment, so big in fact, that he’s spending so much time acting abroad, that it’s almost an event whenever he finds time to do a Danish film. Men and Chicken is only the fourth Danish film he has been in this decade, but two of those other ones, A Royal Affair and The Hunt, got nominated for Academy Awards. Making this film even more anticipated, it’s the first film in a decade by legendary writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen. Still just in his early fortes, Jensen spent the late nineties writing scripts for Dogme films, and was nominated three years in a row for Best Short at the Oscars, winning on his third try for Election Night, while he was still in his twenties. Having since written everything from popular comedies to the films of Susanne Bier, he has also established himself as something very rare in Danish cinema: A true director-auteur, in the sense that his films look like nothing else. His directing debut Flickering Lights from 2000 played a lot like the Tarantino-inspired gangster comedies popular at the time, but with The Green Butchers (2003), about butchers selling human meat, and Adam’s Apples (2005), about a neo-nazi trying to convince a priest that God is evil, he moved onto something truly singular, from big themes such as a twisted, almost morbid sense of morality, to smaller idiosyncrasies such as every film taking place in Southern Funen, and Mads Mikkelsen being in each, with worse wigs for every film.
Men and Chicken finds Anders Thomas Jensen playing in the same sandbox, while also trying to outdo himself. The film starts simply enough: Brothers Elias (Mikkelsen) and Gabriel (David Dencik) discovers, right after the death of their father, that they were in actual fact adopted, and that their actual father resides on an island to the south of Denmark (in all probability south of Funen…) They then travel south to meet him. But once they get to the sanatorium where their scientist father should be, the story explodes. They meet three other brothers, Franz (Søren Malling) Josef (Nicolas Bro) and Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). Each of the five brothers has cleft lip and palate, and each of them is weird in some way, but they all have their own personality, caricatured mannerisms and subplot. On top of that, the gigantic house they reside in harbours dark secrets not just on the first floor, but also in the basement, and then there is whatever is found at the kindergarten, retirement home and mayoral residence on the small island. It is rarely like this, but the film would perhaps have been better off with 30 minutes, or perhaps even a whole hour, added to its 100 min runtime, to give breathing space to all the weird stuff at the periphery, the cheese making, the badminton games, the taxidermy. We’re left with only the contours of the filmic world, though it’s undeniably filled to the brim with absurdist touches. This will be divisive: What is overwhelming for some is thrillingly alluring for others. But when central character motivations and plot-twists remain murky, then perhaps the film needed more space.
Anders Thomas Jensen is a true chameleon, and should be applauded as such. That he can on the other hand write such a large part of the most prominent Danish films, year after year, and still create his own directorial filmography unlike anything else, is awe-inspiring. However, as a director, he does at times seem like a really, really good writer. While a line can seem like typical Jensen, or a prolonged comedic scene, there is not typical Jensen shot or image. There are immensely beautiful images in the film, like a picture of the small bridge connecting the two parts of the island, but that one is repeated so much it almost takes on the character of an establishing shot from a tv-show. Jensen once again shows himself as a fine handler of actors, and the film lets Mikkelsen, Malling and Dencik fill in the gaps where the script doesn’t have space to describe their characters. But it’s as a writerly construct, as a collection of dialogues, themes, allusions and motives, that the film mainly works.
Elias and Gabriel are both biblical names, two different harbingers of the Messiah, while Franz, Josef and Gregor are probably named for Franz Kafka and his two most famous protagonists: Josef K from The Process and Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis. The father is named Thanatos, Greek personification of death. In one of the best scenes in the film, Gabriel, the most grounded of the brothers, has brought a bible into the sanatorium to teach his four brothers about morality. But none of the brothers are able to even locate any moral content in the story of Abraham and Isaac, with Josef cleverly analysing the language of the story to speculate on what mental illness could have caused Abraham to sacrifice his own son, while Elias and Franz are mainly responding to the goat that is sacrificed in Isaac’s place. The film not only puts forth a text filled with immensely many details and allusions, it also makes fun at the whole idea of textual understanding. The barriers to any kind of full comprehension are probably insurmountable.
In Kafka’s fiction, meaning was famously out of reach. The little man would never get to the castle where decisions were made, behind the first door barring his way was only another door. Men and Chicken, at its best, acts the same way. Once a hidden basement is reached, another, deeper one seems hidden there. Perhaps the film should not have been more readable, or the ending more conclusive, but in both cases less so? As the film ends, the audience is still left with a multitude of unanswered questions as to what on earth was going on, and what it all added up to. Perhaps, the film had been better served at not even hinting at resolution. What we’re left with is a thrilling mutant hybrid: On the one hand a populist comedy, filled with often violent slapstick, which has already showed itself as another big audience hit in the filmographies of both it’s director and its popular stars. On the other hand, the film is a postmodern monstrosity: unreadable, unknowable, morbid and cynical.