Monday, August 30, 2010

Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark...and the Czech Republic

by Drew Martin
Prag is a 2006 Danish film, that I liked because the dialogue is in Danish, English and Czech, but otherwise it is a miserable film. I expect too much from European films: I want them to be better than the average American film, but Prag has a lot of common pitfalls. For one, Prague and Czechs are super-stereotyped. The city is shown as either a beautiful backdrop or it is simply drab and bleak. Czechs are, for the most part, portrayed as cold, rude and weird. But the coldest people in the film, are the Danish couple, Christoffer and Maja, who spend most of the time saying horrible, inexcusable things to each other when they visit the city to retrieve the corpse of Christoffer's late father, who has been absent from this 43 year old's life for the past three decades.

Perhaps the caustic dialogue tries to show that they are human, but they are unlikable, unchanging individuals. There is an inherent, unscripted Danish elitism, that this husband and wife of 14 years are somehow superior to the Czechs. They are certainly a handsome couple, though I could now forget John Currin's off-mark comment about his painting "The Danes," to paraphrase his reason for naming it that: Not good looking enough to be Swedes.

The "
shocking" theme of homosexuality is not properly explored here with any insight or respect but the topic is kept in a shameful (and in one scene, laughable) state. It serves too easily in the plot for why Christoffer's father left him as a boy, just as the infidelity of Maja too swiftly prompts Christoffer to repeat his father's flight, leaving behind his own adolescent son, in Denmark. The only redeeming character in the film is the fresh-faced and golden Alena, played by Jana Plodková. She was the housemaid of the elder Dane, with whom she lived, along with her daughter, as a facade to his gay world, which involved not only his lover (the lawyer overseeing the details of sending the body back to Denmark, which ends up in Nairobi) but also his failed business of a dating service for older gay men.

Alena is the warmth and life of the film, casted well with
Plodková. She is only shown in interiors; the father's sunlit house in the woods (where her pictures mingle with his on the wall) and in the soft lighting of the blues/jazz club in which she sings, where Christoffer goes to embrace her serenade.

The film gave me a headache because of the editing of locations. This happens in every film for the sake of artistic license but when you know a city, like the back of your hand, it feels violating and dyslexic. Sometimes a progressive shot, was really the camera going back and forth across the same bridge. There is one scene where the couple takes a taxi ride in the middle of nowhere (some obscure block housing) for a reason that is only apparent in the context of the drama: to have an explosive fight in such an end-of-the-line location.

For me, all of the intended and unintended offenses made sense together, because the film is about alienation that is due solely to one's own neglect (the director, included) for not getting to properly know other people (even one's spouse), places and languages for the sake of maintaining one's isolated and
unshifting perspective on the world. It is hard not to think of Émile Durkheim's seminal tome, Suicide (1897), in which he suggests that the individual, encouraged to pursue his or her individualism (according to his study - by the Protestant church, compared to the culture of Catholicism and Judaism), is more likely to take one's life. In Prag, however, the Danes are dead on arrival.