Although renowned for the nordic noir insurgence of recent years – it is fair to say that – not only are the Danes prolific filmmakers and masters of tension but they appear to have a dark, very specific sense of humour and especially in the case of writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen.
Jensen has, over the last sixteen years or so, created a wonderfully weird little world with Flickering Lights (2000), The Green Butchers (2003) and, Adam’s Apples (2010). Men & Chicken fits perfectly into this twisted little village of well, not to put too finer point on it, weirdos. These are incredibly simple stories told at the periphery of the societal norm and are deliciously transgressive with the filmmaker gathering a supreme ensemble fronted by Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, and Nicolas Bro who feature in all four features. These fine actors, usually known for their dramatic roles clearly relish the opportunity to play, and play they do.
The film opens fairy tale-like with two small boys walking hand-in-hand down a brightly lit corridor, Frans Bak and Jeppe Kaas’ score is wonderfully dreamlike, melodic ominous strings give way to piano and woodwind. The voice-over narration illicits a sense of whimsy which is almost immediately undermined as Gabriel (David Dencik) visits his dying father. His brother Elias (Mikkelsen) is at a therapy session/date at which he reveals aspects of his rapey subconscious, he’s overbearing, has possible incestuous leanings and, what we will soon discover, a chronic masturbatory “issue”. Physically, the only indication that the two are brothers is a harelip, although, only a scar in Gabriel’s case, and once their father passes they discover a VHS taped confessional which serves to reveal the truth behind their real parentage.
Somewhat reluctantly, they set off on a road-trip in the hope of meeting their real paterfamilias Dr. Evelio Thanatos, a Danish/Italian medical researcher whose fancy-sounding name literally translates into “he who gives life” and “death instinct” (stopping along the way for Elias to relieve himself). Their journey takes them to the Island of Ork – population 38 – where they find more brothers living in a crumbling sanatorium amid peeling paint. Francis (Søren Malling), Joseph (Bro) and Gregor (Lie Kaas) share their home with a variety of animals, have an indoor badminton court, and a room full of cheese, they all possess the distinctive harelip, beak-like noses, and unfortunate hair/facial tics and like Elias, large prominent teeth. One doesn’t need to imagine too hard the smells permeating from the dilapidation and general uncleanliness, especially amid the palette of nude, taupe, brown and orange, or eggshell-manure chic if you will.
Understandably, Men & Chicken won’t be to everybody’s taste. It is The League of Gentlemen by way of The Three Stooges, a slapstick social satire combining hilarious horror with pitch black humour, and while there is something quite grotesque and melancholic about the whole thing, it’s actually fairly moving as the notion of what constitutes as family is questioned and civilisation, religion, philosophy and social etiquette is introduced to the three hovel-dwelling brothers.
By the time the family’s full parental history is revealed, the pay-off is well worth the wait. Ridiculous yes, but a testament to the acting prowess and writing to deliver something so ludicrous. Yet, it is bizarrely emotive, not one family fits all and for the Thanatos boys, it comes in many (many) forms surrounded by lots of poultry and cheese.