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« Das Urteil (part 1) | Main | Amadeus »
Sunday
Jun302013

Just Another Love Story

A precise translation of the title of this work would be "Love on film," which may suggest either a documentary featuring a number of amorous mammals or the reason why the term "Scandinavian movie" still makes some Germans blush and giggle.  Its name is odd given its contents, which are brutish, wild, and steeped in the noir tradition, but strange names have not prevented greater works from achieving the recognition they deserve.  As it were, the English re-christening captures the irony and indifference that such a moniker implies, and only elicitable by a rather average protagonist.  And in Jonas (Anders W. Berthelsen) we have our man. 

Jonas lives the bourgeois life but dreams of something brighter and freer.  He has a plain wife, Mette (Charlotte Fich), two rascally children, a mortgage on a modern apartment on this island that he laments, an old and unfaithful car, and two close friends, one relentlessly cynical the other a chuckler.  What distinguishes Jonas from the mediocrity and respectability that harmless bourgeois life entails is his line of work: he spends his time photographing the recently and graphically deceased.  Police photographers do not have the most glamorous of tasks, and one of his friends, Frank, works in forensics staring at corpses night and day.  Frank is single, the son of Slavic immigrants (which might explain his abusive tone when speaking of other such newcomers), and convinced that family life should be a contract drawn up to avoid the flabby loneliness of middle age.  Perhaps Jonas, who dreams of greener pastures, should have taken his cue from Frank and simply had an affair on the side.  Not that such an action would do him any good in the long run, but at least it might have attenuated the attraction to a femme fatale by the name of Julia (Rebecka Hemse).

Julia is not a beautiful woman in any sense of the word.  She hails from a well-heeled half-Swedish family (Hemse herself is Swedish) who indulge her urges to frolic around the world on their dime, and who are thrilled to learn that she has gotten herself engaged to a Dane called Sebastian whom she met while backpacking in Southeast Asia.  But Julia is not quite as thrilled.  The first time we see her, in fact, she has the audacity to endure a bloody and mysterious flashback while driving just as Jonas's car stalls yet again on the freeway.  The result blinds and cripples Julia, as well as renders her amnesiac – although the flashback indicates that she was already having trouble remembering exactly what happened one hot and hopeless day in some place far less luxurious than a Hanoi Hilton.  Being the sappy, sentimental type, Jonas naturally feels responsible for the two-car pileup, especially after his repeated castigation by Mette regarding his decrepit car.  If your wife nags you to near-death, and in that near-death experience you find someone who is strikingly not your wife, is this not kismet?  So as he cradles Julia in his arms waiting for medical assistance she mutters the name Sebastian, at which point Jonas should have gently laid her down on the asphalt and let her die.  He, of course, does nothing of the sort.

What occurs thereafter is patently ridiculous in our conventional view of reality, but quite logical from another angle.  By lying to hospital security for a chance to visit Julia, Jonas – humble, heavy-set Jonas – becomes Sebastian.  Sebastian, the same fiancé whom Julia mentioned to her family; Sebastian, the same fiancé who Frank learns, well-connected to Danish diplomatic missions around the world, was found murdered in Hanoi weeks earlier.  Indeed, a vignette at the very beginning of the film shows a grizzled, thinner man (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and a woman that greatly resembles Julia in some dingy hotel naked, sweaty, and contemplating what they should do with a pistol.  Julia's family quickly embraces Jonas as the Sebastian who just spent nine months loving their daughter, although her rather oblivious father announces his amazement as to how Jonas "is not like Julia's boyfriends, not a rock climber or a drug dealer, but a kind, ordinary fellow," just the Pimpernel they have always sought for their rebellious offspring.  Jonas begins spending more and more time in Julia's room recreating the existence that she cannot recall (a conceit used similarly in this film) until one evening she has had enough chitchat and wants to feel why they loved each other so much in the first place.  Only a few days later Julia whispers to Jonas that she is pregnant, which hitherto was apparently a near-impossibility, prompting Jonas to ask: "Here or in Hanoi?"  The answer he receives, corroborated by an angry physician who accuses him of rape, suggests that something is horribly awry.  And as in all film noir, our hero is already too deeply involved to extricate himself in time.

Hints are generously sprinkled throughout the film as to where this runaway train is heading, and fans of thrillers should have little trouble in deciphering the puzzle.  Nevertheless, a few thoughtful twists make the film more interesting than it should have been, which has always been the hallmark of talent; whether the tale really treats of love, however, depends on your conception of happiness.  In a moment of mantic insight Julia states that she is "terrified of regular meals and rituals" and could not imagine a spouse and two-child home with "friends coming over for dinner at six on Saturdays"; another vignette shows Jonas's life as fitting that description to a tee.  Jonas wants the opposite of all that, which he mistakenly believes to be the blind, disabled woman with a sordid past he holds and kisses in a hospital room he should never have been allowed to enter.  His drifting from Mette is cruel and gradual, but she sniffs it out from the start yet does not try to make herself more desirable because that no longer is an option.  In German the film has yet another title, "Unconditional" (or "Unconditionally"; German is famous for not having distinct adverbial forms), as in the pledge that Jonas as Sebastian makes to Julia and her family, as well as a very different pledge that Julia makes to the real Sebastian.  I suppose it could also refer to the wedding vows that Jonas shatters.  But noir has rarely provided us with any guidelines for good marriages.

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