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Tuesday
Sep092014

Fear me not

It's about time I had a little secret to keep from her.

                                                                                                          Mikael Neumann

I have only one minor objection regarding this film, and that concerns the way in which a daughter ultimately discovers the 'truth' about her father. Surely the screenwriters could have thought a wee longer about this one (I couldn't help but stare gobsmacked at the screen as it unfolded). What happens after that revelation, which is, in keeping with good cinematic principles, not a revelation to a viewer of Fear me not, may disappoint those who tend to expect a film of suspense to devolve into a preposterous string of action scenes far beyond the physical capabilities of average citizens. No, the film hints in many directions, but proceeds down a consistent and straight path, and pays off in a most likely manner. All of which, of course, will strike that same disappointed crowd as unlikely. 

We begin one blue northern evening with a lean, middle-aged male inhaling smoke off the veranda of a rather fabulous lakeside house. This man is Mikael Neumann (a somewhat emaciated Ulrich Thomsen), and he is six weeks into a vacation that, from the sound of it, was precipitated by a total nervous breakdown. His comments – he will be our narrator and guide through a dark labyrinth – never really address his illness, if that is indeed the right term. He merely concedes that "certain details have great meaning," and that he "should take any opportunity that can help [him] move past" – what exactly, again we don't know. As he stands there and smokes, we wonder about this man, grim in Thomsen's unique way of looking at once both grim and lovable, thin and nervous without a single twitch, hungry in the way he devours his cigarette again and again. His wife Sigrid (Paprika Steen), an architect who inherited the house from her architect father, will never be mistaken for a beauty queen yet possesses what faddish writers like to call moxie. Within a few short minutes of spousal interaction, we learn the following about Mikael: he has a condition, or thinks he has a condition, that makes him a liability for simple chores and assignments; he is plagued by thoughts of his work colleague Jørgensen, who appears to be overdue for a dinner invitation; and he is either the stricter of the two parents or simply the more dominant, since when their only child Selma (Emma Sehested Høeg) tries to negotiate a return time from her boyfriend's place, Sigrid immediately defers to Mikael's permission of an extra hour. The small smile subsequently exchanged between father and daughter is one of true love and understanding, a vital detail because it suggests, in light of later events, that Mikael Neumann is not a monster. What he really is does not surface until the appearance of Sigrid's brother, the nebbish physician Frederik (Lars Brygmann).

Frederik is a scientist and a frightful bore; he is also a perfect foil to what we will be expected to understand as Mikael's latent heroic qualities. In a more normal film, however, Frederik would not flash that mildly sinister streak that we detect from the very beginning. Frederik, you see, comes from money, as does Sigrid, and his privileged existence's only genuine challenge is maintaining the interest of his dishy spouse Ellen (Stine Stengade). The two couples dine together chez Neumann and the subject of conversation between the siblings inevitably turns to the beautiful house that Sigrid, not Frederik, inherited. She's an architect, he explains to his wife, who doesn't seem to need the explanation. Indeed, a later scene determines that he and Ellen have been together for "ages," so how does this detail make sense? It only does if Frederik is providing a justification not to his wife but to himself. In other words, the only reason that Frederik did not get the house is because Sigrid embraced their father's vocation whereas he did not (while Sigrid apparently took "a long time" to get over her father's death, her brother's admission that he visited their father right before he passed away is met with Sigrid's genuine surprise). This subplot, abetted by clear erotic tension between Ellen and Mikael, who seem to agree in conspiratorial asides that the siblings are nice if a bit dull, adds a dimension to the film that renders the main story line all the more riveting. And what is that story line, you ask? An offer to fix Mikael's problem, made of course by his ever-helpful brother-in-law. In no small coincidence, the offer occurs at an unusual location: in the middle of our gorgeous lake upon which Mikael was staring as our film opened and which Frederik seems to behold with a restrained sigh. The two men row, row, row their boat well out of earshot, and Frederik just so happens to mention that, going forward, Mikael will be rowing alone. Frederik's free time will be violently dented by lab tests of a new anti-depressant on some volunteers. "The trick," he adds with the same flippancy, "is to get normal people to do it. Sick people will try anything." This greatly interests Mikael, seated so that he cannot see his brother-in-law. Frederik also cannot see Mikael's face, although we sense that the comment was well-planned and designed to bait Mikael in precisely the way it succeeds. "I don't think Sigrid would like you being a guinea pig," says Frederik, with no conviction whatsoever in that statement, eliciting the retort at the beginning of this review. 

Up to now, we have little more than an elegant, restrained portrait of someone who is ill: ill in the way that many people become ill; ill because life has changed and we have not changed or do not want to change; ill because life and we have taken different forks in the road yet seem to be aware of each other's presence, on skew tracks drifting farther and farther apart. Had the director not developed the plot any more deeply and just relied on the sustained excellence of his cast, we would likely have had a tidy melodrama with a sprinkling of memorable moments. But once Mikael gets his hands on the new anti-depressant, the film skids into a series of sharp turns yet never quite spins off the road. There is that spontaneous brawl at the clinic, towards which Mikael feels both repulsion and attraction; the even odder retreat to Mikael's birthplace in the countryside – our film is at pains to remind us that Mikael, to use an old idiom, is a husband of the left hand – where he encounters some old chums and a nubile eighteen-year-old by the name of Pia, but not the person he told Sigrid he was visiting, namely his mother; and then there is Ellen. The pills have made Mikael braver with life, as well as with the loveliest shades that life offers. "You ended up with Frederik but you always fancied me," he tells Ellen one temerarious evening. Her reaction addresses that claim, as well as apparently every other sentence the two have ever exchanged, and Ellen's perception of Mikael has shifted forever. Ellen is a lovely young lady, still studying as if she were student-age herself. "Is that why you won't have his children?" asks Mikael, again discharging from point-blank range. One thing leads to a few others and, ultimately, to a superb scene where Mikael and Sigrid discuss how Frederik wouldn't be able to handle certain information.  

Halfway through the film, Mikael returns to work and we finally get to see the enigmatic Jørgensen mentioned right at the beginning – but we don’t get to see him for long. Mikael waits alone in Jørgensen's office, takes a look at the latter’s family photograph, and decides he'll come back another day. Is Jørgensen only a McGuffin, the successful entrepreneur and family man that Mikael cannot become? Or is he the person in the original Danish title, Den du frygter (“He whom you fear”), some evil and distant enemy? One of Thomsen's great assets as an actor is an uncanny ability to make himself look honorable regardless of the situation. And perhaps that skill of deception is exactly what Mikael fears most.   

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