11 August, 2008

Vikaren (The Substitute) (2007)

That’ll learn ‘em…

It would be a mistake to attempt to categorize Ole Bornedal's Vikaren as 'horror'. It’s certainly a fantasy film, and a very good one at that. I would venture that it is probably the first real family horror film. The kids have a handle on what’s going on from very early on, and the adults – somewhat unsurprisingly, don’t believe them. The story is indeed an unlikely one. In the fine tradition of fantasy cinema, an alien from an unnamed planet, whose inhabitants only know war and conflict, arrives on Earth to seek out the true meaning of love and “how to do it”. The whole thing happens on a battery chicken farm (where else?) and there’s a rather higher-than-usual amount of chicken/egg iconography throughout.

Having invaded and ‘borrowed’ the body of a hapless earthling, the alien does what any self-respecting alien would do, and gets a job as a substitute teacher in a Copenhagen school. There is a method in her, shall we say, ‘unorthodox’ style of teaching. Her aim is to find out for herself what it is in the human condition that can generate empathy for one’s fellow man, and to train the children for a trip to Paris to compete against other schools academically. She wants the children to be the best they can, and boy – does she have a strange work ethic. In a wonderful, sinister - and yet strangely alluring – performance by Paprika Steen, Ulla Harms puts the students through hell. From day one, she belittles them, insults them and puts them through gruelling physical workouts in the name of education.

The central focus of the story is a boy, Carl (Jonas Wandschneider) who has recently lost his mother and is being cared for by his father, Jesper (Ulrich Thomsen). He is the strange kid who still talks to his dead mum and is picked on by the rest of the class – until he arrives late for a PTA meeting and discovers Ulla’s terrible secret. My only problem with the setup is that Carl and Jesper get new neighbours – a single woman with a girl Carl’s age, who ends up in his class. The woman just happens to be a cop, which is as obvious a plot contrivance as you could imagine, and she lends pretty much nothing else to the film’s substance at all, save for a fairly pointless cameo towards the end.

The suspicious kids take it upon themselves to investigate Ulla’s house, and discover that she is indeed not all the adults think she might be. I won’t spoil the moment for you, but it’s ‘bloody’ funny. Unluckily for Carl, Jesper quite likes the idea of being a little more than friends with Ulla, and there’s a sublime dinner-table sequence in which Ulla tries to explain “there’s no love where I come from” and that in her culture, the females mate then devour the males. Jesper takes all this as metaphorical, and you could just slap him for being so stupid.

As I mentioned in the intro, it really is kind of a family horror film. It romps around between an early British Children’s Film Foundation ‘let’s go and get the bad guys ourselves’ caper, through Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and into some very weird places indeed – there’s even, in the biggest ‘jump’ of the movie, what simply has to be a direct homage to the character ‘Large Marge’ in Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Again, I couldn’t possibly spoil the moment for you, but it’s a good one.

The most enjoyable thing for me is how much fun it is. There are many good gags and some genuine creepy moments. I believe that if you have children and they’re not over-sensitive, they’d like this a lot.

It’s visually appealing, too. Shot in a monochrome-ish tint, it evokes the graininess and urgency of the 1950s schlock-horror genre, but again managing to not take itself desperately seriously.

Apart from a couple of the side plots tapering off into nothing, there’s little to fault this little Danish gem. There’s sassy kids, good gags, a few surprises and a sexy alien dominatrix – what more could you want from a film?

Bodil Festen, Copenhagen 2008: Winner, Dan Laustsen, Best Cinematography
Bodil Festen, Copenhagen 2008: Nominated, Paprika Steen, Best Actress
Fant-Asia Film Festival, Montréal 2008: Winner, L’Ecran Fantastique award
Robert Festen, Copenhagen 2008: Multiple nominations over various categories.

93 mins. In Danish.

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