Danish cinema has been known in recent decades for a couple of things: Formal experimentation in the vein of Lars von Trier, and, especially if you go back to the 1988 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, Babette’s Feast, food porn. That may be a stretch, but it’s not every week that two Danish films open in town the same weekend, and each of them fulfills one fork in that statement.
Both the title and the poster for Flee do the film, in my opinion, a disservice. The poster features several dozen illustrations of diverse individuals against a white background. Paired with its bluntly universal title, this led me to expect some sort of anthology of stories about the immigrant and/or refugee experience. In fact, the reality is much more specific and effective.
When director Jonas Poher Rasmussen decided to make a documentary about the experiences of his longtime friend, the pseudonymous Amin, an Afghani immigrant, there was one roadblock: Amin could only tell his story safely if he remained anonymous. So Rasmussen ended up using a combination of animation and archival footage to tell the very particular, yet achingly universal, story of just one of the globe’s innumerable victims of war and upheaval.
Amin’s story begins with his childhood in 1980s Kabul, during the Soviet invasion and occupation of the country. Eventually, he and his family members end up escaping to Moscow, where they continue to work toward emigration to Western Europe. The details are harrowing, rendered in a two-dimensional, rotoscope fashion, except during moments of extremity, when the visuals devolve into chalky, black-and-white abstract imagery.
The narrative flashes forward to present-day Copenhagen at times, revealing that Amin is, today, a successful, if haunted, academic with a handsome and devoted husband. I wish the film had done a little bit better job of explaining why Amin remains, despite his clear acculturation and assimilation, reluctant to share his backstory. But the gist is that, like so many others who have weathered war, dislocation, tragedy, and deprivation, to finally arrive at some stability, he dares not do anything to disturb it.
Using animation to serve documentary or memoir purposes isn’t particularly novel. 2008’s Waltz with Bashir explored an Israeli soldier’s experiences in the Lebanon War; Marjane Satrapi’s groundbreaking Persepolis, released the year before, did the same for a child’s life in revolutionary Iran. Even more relevantly, Portlander Joe Sacco’s graphic-novel portraits of the refugee experience, including Palestine and Safe Area: Gorazde are clear precursors to Rasmussen’s effort here. Extra impact comes from the incorporation of archival news footage covering some of the (often tragic) events that Amin’s family wove in and out of during their exodus.
What gives Flee its potency is its particularity. The fact that Amin is Muslim, or Afghani, or gay, all of which impact his fate and the threats he faces, nonetheless ranks below the fact that he is a child, thrust randomly (at least from his perspective) into a maelstrom of random cruelty, constant fear, and relentless determination. He’s not meant to represent all victims of war, revolution, and intolerance, but he is one of them, albeit one who has been able to build a life for himself regardless. (Opens Friday, Jan. 28, at Cinema 21 and the Salem Cinema.)
AMONG THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS of Flee (i.e., folks who lent their names to the project to enhance its visibility) are Oscar-nominated actor Riz Ahmed and Danish movie star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best-known on these shores and most others as Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones. In a coincidence that may be less impressive when one considers the population of Denmark, Coster-Waldau stars in the other Danish film under discussion today, as a hyper-motivated chef in the melodramatic A Taste of Hunger.
Carsten (Coster-Waldau) is a charismatic but demanding kitchen god, who, along with his wife, Maggie (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal), wants nothing more than to earn the singular honor of a Michelin star for their provincial restaurant. As word spreads about the possible arrival of a Michelin critic in town, the stress level hits the roof, and the mysterious arrival of a message hinting at extramarital indiscretions by Maggie only fuels the fire.
Unfortunately, director Christoffer Boe can’t decide whether A Taste for Hunger is a Bergmanesque exploration of marital discord and discontent or an expose of high-end restaurant culture in all its glorious excess. While the many scenes of precision food preparation are enough to whet the appetite of even the least gluttonous, there’s no real insight into what drives people to this sort of gustatory monomania. And the emotional conflicts between Carsten and Maggie never rise above the predictably tendentious, despite a nice surprise reveal in the end. (Opens Friday, Jan. 28, at the Living Room Theaters.)
This is an especially fertile week for repertory screenings in Portland, an occasion that highlights how lucky we are to be in a city that continues to provide a diverse array of big-screen offerings that create cinematic community in a way that residential streaming simply can’t. It may not qualify as a rep title, but the Hollywood Theatre is screening the black-and-white version of 2021’s Nightmare Alley (the 1947 version was already monochrome) for three showings only this weekend. The noir atmosphere of Guillermo Del Toro’s latest should only be enhanced in this format, and we likely have the fact of co-writer Kim Morgan’s Portland roots to thank for this opportunity to appreciate them.
Otherwise, in addition to the Hollywood, the Clinton Street Theater and the Cinemagic Theater (recently under new ownership) also strut their curatorial stuff. Here’s a day-by-day outlook:
Friday 1/28: Jim Jarmusch’s cult western Dead Man and the Dutch thriller The Vanishing, both at the Clinton; Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim and the 1980s schlock sci-fi Trancers at Cinemagic.
Saturday 1/29: Professor Elliot Lavine presents 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success at Cinema 21; a Christopher Nolan double feature of Inception and Dunkirk unspools at Cinemagic; Jean-Pierre Melville’s existential French gangster flick Le Samurai is at the Clinton; and the Prince’s magnum opus, Purple Rain, is at the Hollywood.
Sunday 1/30: A triple feature (separate admissions) that has likely never occurred before of The Iron Giant, Dumb & Dumber, and My Own Private Idaho at Cinemagic; the timeless concert documentary Monterey Pop at the Clinton.
Monday 1/31: A tribute to the late filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich with Paper Moon at the Hollywood; Argentine auteur Lucretia Martel’s debut feature La Cienaga at the Clinton; and David Fincher’s sublime serial killer fable Seven at Cinemagic.
Tuesday 2/1: The first feature from Yugoslav anarchist Dusan Makavejev, 1966’s Man Is Not a Bird, at the Clinton; 1988’s ‘B-Movie Bingo’ entry Night of the Kickfighters (with an appearance by Adam West!) at the Hollywood. Now there’s a contrast.
Wednesday 2/2: Robert Altman’s elegiac, masterful 1971 anti-Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller at Cinemagic (see this one on the big screen if you can!); 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan celebrates its 40th anniversary at the Hollywood; and a new documentary about the British feminist punk icon Poly Styrene, told through the eyes of her daughter, called Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, at the Clinton.
Thursday 2/3: Time to take a load off, grab a pitcher or two of martinis, and head to the Hollywood for a screening of 1934’s The Thin Man.
I’ve always said that if you can’t find something worthwhile to see in a Portland-area theater on a given evening, then you’re probably not trying. And I’m happy to see that the theaters are getting back to making that statement true, week in and week out.