Nov 1, 2010

LFF 2010: Nothing's All Bad

DIR: Mikkel Munch-Falls
CAST: Mille Lehfeldt, Sebastian Jessen,
Bodil Jørgensen, Henrik Prip
Mikkel Munch-Falls’ first feature is one of the most accomplished debuts I’ve seen in a long time (and a lot of filmmakers took their first bows at this year’s LFF). If you want to wrap NOTHING’S ALL BAD lazily up in a nutshell then you could say that it’s a Danish MAGNOLIA, focusing on the sex lives of four disparate, but increasingly linked, characters, but that really would do a disservice to a film that is much more distinctive than that.

Each character drives their own story. There is Ingeborg (Jørgensen), a widow in her sixties who is increasingly isolated. This leads her to, one night, bring home Anders (Jessen), a nineteen year old working as a bi-sexual rent boy. Then there is Anna (Lehfeldt), an attractive woman in her early thirties, who worries that her recent mastectomy has made her unattractive and there is Anders (Prip), a middle-aged man whose drive to expose himself has seen him convicted of sexual offences. All their stories unfold separately, but they also cross paths, and draw together into an utterly compelling patchwork.

Each story is compelling in and of itself, but for me none more so than Anna’s heartbreaking section of the film. Mille Lehfeldt, who has little dialogue to work with and few scenes with other characters, gives perhaps the best performance I’ve seen by an actress this year. She’s able to communicate the turmoil that Anna is going through with a series of gestures, with the way she regards her scarred body. It would be easy to play Anna badly, any actress could scream, tear her hair out, break down in tears while feeling her chest. Lehfeldt does none of this, instead she internalizes, making the smallest of moments feel like an emotional shot to the gut. I can’t tell you where Anna’s story ends up, but it’s horrifically sad, and difficult to uderstand if you saw it written down, but Lehfeldt, with the help of Munch-Falls’ sensitive script, sells every moment.

By singling out Mille Lehfeldt I don’t wish to take away from the contributions of the other actors. These are extreme roles, going to places that are explicit and challenging, and all the actors more than rise to the challenge. Henrik Prip has perhaps the hardest job, because though not all the characters could be described as sympathetic, Anders should be utterly loathsome. The first time we see him he’s exposing himself in the park, sitting next to a pretty young woman, masturbating. In a brave choice neither the film nor Prip judge Anders, and rather than loathsome they make him pathetic, pitiable. As Ingeborg, Bodil Jørgensen sketches a moving portrait of a woman left alone after a long marriage, but not wanting to be starved of attention or affection. Her moment of realization when, after they kiss, Anders suggest the “we get the money out of way now” is especially painful. NOTHING’S ALL BAD (incidentally, a terrible title compared to literal translation “Beautiful People”) pivots around Jonas, and for a while he seems to be the thread that ties everything together. It’s perhaps the most stock role; we’ve seen this young male hustler before, but Sebastian Jessen makes him real. He’s especially good when Jonas is taken in by a middle-aged couple, becoming just another carefree teenager, until the tables turn in one horrifying moment.

Mikkel Munch-Falls, a former critic making his first film, has a firm grip on his story and characters, so much so that even the final scene, which could easily have felt trite, works. Rather than making everything okay in the last moments, Munch-Falls emphasizes what lies underneath the scene, the secrets just waiting to pop up. He never lets the dam burst, instead it plays as something that underlies every word and gesture, investing every frame with a sickly tension. Stylistically Munch-Falls favors letting us dwell in a moment, his camera moves only when motivated to, and this, along with the sedate editing, helps draw us in to these lives.

Some people will find this film horrible. Point of fact, it is horrible, but that shouldn’t blind you to the brilliant acting, the intelligent observation of the darker side of people’s lives, the way the film makes you feel for these characters without going for a single obvious mawkish moment. As is so often the case with the best thngs on show at a festival, NOTHING’S ALL BAD is yet to find a UK distributor, if it doesn’t manage to pick up one of the braver indie companies then you really should seek this film out as it serves notice of several extremely interesting talents, as well as being, quite simply, one of the best films of the year.

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