Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Why do Danish movies have so much grunt?

My last post ended with a quiz. This time I’m starting with one:

Q: What is stød ?

a)      Reindeer meat jerky

b)      A Norwegian male porn star

c)       A sacred mountain in Norse mythology

d)      A suburb of Copenhagen

e)      None of the above

Watch out for the answer later.

It’s been Danish week at our place. I watched last week’s episode of Borgen on catch-up last Tuesday, the next episode ‘live’ on Wednesday and then Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt at the movies on Thursday.

Borgen has a pretty standard TV political drama plot: Against all expectations, politician Birgitte Nyborg  becomes Denmark’s Prime Minister, forming a centrist coalition by outsmarting the smarmy veterans of the left and right. Each week she steers a nifty course, never succumbing to venality, coming home occasionally to her impossibly patient house husband, who has drawn up a lovemaking schedule (I sense that there is a story arc beginning here). I flinched a tiny bit at her rapid conversion to the Greenland cause and the slightly mawkish day-in-a minute scene where she tours the island learning about the troubles of the inhabitants; we see her talking earnestly to poor Inuit fishermen, windbeaten housewives, and other unfortunates, with no words audible behind the musical score. But I’m hanging out for next week!

The feature film The Hunt is a lot grimmer: Lucas, a teacher, lives in a small conservative village. When the school closes down, he takes a job at the kindergarten, but is accused of sexual misconduct towards a small girl. I won’t spoil it for you, but watch out for performances in a film that had me welded to my seat; I especially loved Alexandra Rapaport as the immigrant girlfriend who can see through the hypocrisy and blockheadedness of the villagers.

So what’s special about The Hunt? And for that matter my top-of-the-list Danish films The Celebration, Open Hearts, Brothers, and Pusher?

The easy answer is Mads Mikkelsen, but of course he’s not in every Danish movie. The next easy answer is directors Susanne Bier and Lars von Trier, but there are other Danish film directors too.

My yardstick for analysing non-English language cinemas is to ask the question ‘How would Hollywood have made this film’. For example try watching Wim Wenders’ divine Wings of Desire and then gag on the US remake City of Angels.

I suspect that the answer here might be patience: Danish film makers seem to have a keen sense of restraint in the way that strong emotional content is delivered. Watch out for the scenes of violence in The Hunt; you’ll be caught unawares. I don’t think a US director would have credited their audience with that much patience. Or watch the subtly handled reaction of the kindergarten teacher when she is told of the sticky details of the alleged offense; I’m sure a US director would not have been able to resist a full-face shot of horror and a bit of vomit.

In Pusher (yes, Mads Mikkelsen again) the bungling drug pushers owe money to gang boss Milo, played by the brilliant Zlatko Buric; violence oozes beneath the surface and you shiver at the sociopathic Milo’s feigned affection for the terrified Frank and Tonny. Somehow I think our sorry lads would have had their asses kicked much earlier in the US remake (Heaven forbid that it will happen!)

Back to Borgen and the quiz. Having said such complementary things about Danish movies, I have to confess that Borgen doesn’t actually come up to the mark. To use the Hollywood test, there are equally good or much better US TV series, such as The West Wing. So why does Borgen get under my skin? I have a suspicion that it is actress Sidse Babett Knudsen’s  enchanting stød. Whoops, I forgot to say that the correct answer to the quiz is (e), none of the above.

If you listen carefully to Danish, you’ll hear frequent little grunts or ‘creaky voice’ as linguists call it, a pronunciation feature known as stød. This is strictly speaking a suprasegmental  feature, that is a little overlay of sound used to distinguish meanings. So while, the Danish words hun (she) and hunt (dog) are pronounced with the same consonants and vowels, the dog word carries a little grunt.  I’m intrigued by this example, and I wonder if it is a source of mother in law jokes in Denmark. The rules for using stød are terrifyingly complex and would deter any foreigner from ever attempting to speak the language authentically (or acquiring a Danish mother in law).

They all do it: Mads and his brother Lars stød like champions. For all I know the Tasmanian-born Mary Crown Princess of Denmark practices it in a gilded mirror nightly, and has nightmares about grunting in the wrong places at balls. But no one gives stød so minxily as Sidse Babett Knudsen playing Birgitte Nyborg .

So let’s get to the heart of it: I’ve fallen in love with Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg ‘s grunt. I can excuse the holes in Borgen’s  plot, the lack of patience, the full-face emotion shots and even the soft focus Inuits: Just give me my weekly dose of Birgitte and her stød!

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