Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Fear Me Not

Kristian Levring was an early adopter of the Danish Dogme95 film movement, which established rigid guidelines for strict realism and aesthetic purity, such as mandating hand-held cameras, requiring natural unadulterated lighting, and expressly prohibiting genre films. Evidently, Levring has moved on. His latest film, Fear Me Not, screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a slickly produced psychological thriller that clearly violates many Dogme precepts.

Something is wrong with Mikael. He has taken a leave of absence for reasons undisclosed. His wife Sigrid is ready for him to get back out there, but he is in no hurry. Hearing his brother-in-law will be testing a new ant-depressant, Mikael volunteers for the study. Popping the new happy pills seems to work wonders for his self-esteem, according to the record he keeps in his diary (which the audience hears through voiceovers, in a smoking gun violation of the Dogme canon).

Unfortunately, the growth of Mikael’s sense of self comes at the expense of other parts of his psyche—notably conscience and empathy. When melee breaks out among the test subjects in the pharmaceutical company’s waiting room, the trial is called off and Mikael is instructed to destroy his remaining stock, which of course he does not do. Those pills are just too good.

Deciding his admittedly materialistic wife is an obstacle to his mental blossoming, Mikael viciously manipulates her into a state of collapse. Slowly but surely, Mikael has evolved into a sociopath. However, despite its initial premise, Fear should not be dismissed as a clichéd demonization of the pharmaceutical industry. The truth is actually far deeper and more unsettling than a standard Hollywood morality tale.

Ulrich Thomsen, familiar to art-house audiences as the emotionally frozen pianist in Christoffer Boe’s Allegro and the traumatized brother in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, plays Mikael, another disturbed Dane. Thomsen is astutely understated in Fear, making his transformation is a subtle process and giving his horrific acts a cool detachment that is creepily effective. Young actress Emma Sehsted Høeg is also quite impressive as Mikael’s pre-teen daughter Selma, in a smart, realistic performance that never seems precocious.

Despite its glossy look, Levring’s Dogme roots are still traceable in Fear. Rather than take viewers on a white-knuckle ride, he would rather transport them to a very dark place and leave them there. The result is an intelligent but very dark spin on the psycho-in-the-family thriller. It screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25th, 26th, and 28th.