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Green Butchers
cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Mads Mikkelsen, Nicolas Bro, and Line Kruse

director: Anders Thomas Jensen

95 minutes (15) 2003
widescreen ratio 16:9
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail
[released 6 February]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Two Danish butchers, Svend (Mads Mikkelsen) and Bjarne (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), frustrated by lack of opportunity, decide to set up on their own. One has marital problems, the other a twin brother Eigil (also played by Kaas), apparently brain dead, currently on life support after a family tragedy some years back. They open their shop, but initial trade is very disappointing. To gain his inheritance and assist the start up, Bjarne has his brother's machine turned off and makes the acquaintance of a woman, Astrid (Line Kruse), in a graveyard. Meanwhile as Svend discovers the body of an overlooked workman in the freezer room, the brain damaged Eigil recovers enough to be unexpectedly discharged...

With Green Butchers (aka: De Grønne Slagtere) we are in the territory previously marked out by Sweeney Todd, Eating Raoul, Delicatessen and the like: art house cannibalism. The peculiar flavour of writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen's film is partly explained by this choice of subject, as well as his involvement in the Dogme film movement, having contributed scripts for Mifune (1999), The King is Alive (2000), as well as Open Hearts (2002). The Dogme movement has made a virtue of making films to a strictly naturalistic series of rules, the severity of which, whether entirely serious or not, was intended to "force the truth out of characters and settings." Green Butchers is not a Dogme film, but some of its characteristics owe themselves to an artistic manifesto, which instructed its adherents to make films by all means available, even "at the cost of good taste" if necessary.

It's Jensen's second feature film after the well-received Flickering Lights (aka: Blinkende Lygter, 2000 - a film which also starred Mikkelsen and Kaas), another comedy-drama. Jensen's sly, dry humour is much in evidence here, too, as we follow the business of his two misfit butchers, 'Sweaty' Svend and pot smoking Bjarne into the path of making meals out of unwanted humans. As critics have observed, this is a film with two intertwined threads, with much overt, and grisly, dark comedy revolving around Sven, a man who "has never been loved." He's apparently unable to show anyone the inside of his freezer without adding them to the chilled cabinet for the customers next morning, prepared as his speciality dish 'Chicky Wicky'. Bjarne's story brings to the narrative more in the way of pathos and sweetness as, while struggling with the predations of his increasingly erratic partner in butchery, he also has to come to terms with the sudden revival of his brain damaged twin brother, as well as burgeoning relationship with the slightly naïve Astrid.

Playing both Bjarne and twin Eigil, Nikolaj Lie Kaas is remarkable in giving entirely separate performances throughout, so much so that I was going to make him a name to watch, but a quick look at his filmography reveals that he has already made 28 (including one related to his portrayal here, the notorious Dogme film Idiots of 1998) of which no fewer than 20 will have appeared in the last five years! The Walkenesque Mikkelsen, who is perhaps most familiar to British and American viewers as Tristan in the recent version of King Arthur, is also memorable, offering up Svend's characteristic, sweaty, culpability whilst sporting an unnaturally high, damp forehead (an on-screen effect gained, we learn, by a watering unit ingeniously devised by the special effects department).

In the interviews which accompany the film on disc, Jensen mentions how keen he was to "make something better than farce" out of his subject matter and, if it has a fault, it is that his film occasional teeters too far in the opposite direction, refusing some obvious opportunities to show the comedy of panic or grim humour. Instead, Dogme's metier means that Green Butchers unfolds slowly, with more natural pauses and silences, and an unforced lunacy all of its own. Such deadpan absurdity frequently pays dividends (one especially relishes Svend's quiet words to the newly returned Eigel, soft toy under his arm, that he should "point the giraffe somewhere else, so that we can talk calmly again") although there have been complaints from some that a sharper edge to the bloody proceedings, other than those demonstrated by Bjarne and Svend's knives, would have been welcome. To be sure, some cannibalistic movies, such as Romero's Dawn Of The Dead bring an apt comment on consumerism. Instead Jensen's film relates slaughter back to interior matters such as Svend's compulsive, murderous need to be loved and successful - a result he eventually achieves through his marinade - or even by placing the act of butchery in a entirely different context outside of society altogether. For instance the comment by Holger, famous for his deer sausages, that "It's mythological to kill an animal and then mock it by sticking it in its own intestine." Outraged by the role that nature played in provoking the death of his parents, Bjarne sees his work as specifically an act of revenge on animals, not people, a logic that places him apart from such characters as Sweeney Todd. While the eager consumers of Chicky Wickys queue up outside the shop eager for their next portion, obvious satire is played down. In interview, the cast and writer see the film's focus elsewhere, on "coming to terms with one's fate," or learning to live at peace with oneself.

Of course interior states are always subjective rather than objective. And if the Dogme creed values strict naturalism, then Green Butchers is a film which, although related to the movement by eschewing overt dramatics, it never the less inhabits a separate, almost fantasy world of its own - another point acknowledged on the DVD's accompanying interviews. It's a place not opposed to the fertile and dark imaginations of Caro and Jeuner (whose successful Delicatessen it has sometimes been compared) if without their Gallic flamboyance, and whose odd elements gradually fit into a weird whole. Indeed the last scene of the film makes the point succinctly, drawing together the principal characters in a moment that is both playful, absurd and unifying at the same time.

The DVD includes a chaptered presentation of the film, a half-hour piece featuring cast and crewing modestly discussing the oddities of making a film with such a peculiar feel to it. There's another piece focusing on the prosthetics used and the point of view from special effects, but not much else. However given the unique nature of Green Butchers (how often does one see a Danish cannibalism movie?) as well as some uniformly excellent performances, it can be recommended.
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