With Your Permission (2007) dir. Paprika Steen
Starring: Lars Brygmann, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Søren Pilmark, Rasmus Bjerg, Nicolaj Kopernikus
I’m confident enough to say Denmark’s Anders Thomas Jensen is the best screenwriter working in the world today. His quantity and quality of work has been consistent for almost 10 years. He’s can write dark brooding character films such as “After the Wedding” and “Brothers” as well as wildly hilarious comedies, “The Green Butchers”, “Adam’s Apples”. Therefore it’s no surprise that “With Your Permission” is a late festival gem. It’s a wicked black comedy about a n’er do well restaurant manager whose being physically abused by his overbearing wife and seeks solace with group therapy. Only the Danes could find humour in spousal abuse and make it easily translatable to American audiences.
Jan (Lars Brygmann) is a pathetic man. Everyday he shows up to his ferry restaurant job with a new bruise or scar from the frequent beatings from his wife. He is a failed opera singer who developed tinnatus and thus had to abandon his artistic career. He has taken his own personal misery out on his wife (also a former opera singer) by not letting her pursue her own career. He also takes out his aggression on his staff and customers on the ferry – and in one funny scene calls the police when a customer takes a fry from her husband’s meal without paying for the buffet plate.
Jan is instructed to go to therapy to seek help. When he shows up in the first session, there’s only two other men in the room – both of whom are tough burly car mechanics who beat their wives. Jan feels shame for his own plight, and through peer pressure, pretends to be a wife-beater as well just to fit in. This first lie begets more lies which compound on top of each other thereby worsening in his situation. When Jan’s wife Bente (Sidse Babett Knudsen) gets a part in ‘La Boehme’ his jealousy fuels further despair. With no other options Jan is forced to go to extreme measures to relieve himself of the sorrows in his life.
Writer Anders Thomas Jensen and director Paprika Steen start out by drawing Jan with superb clarity. Though his hairdo and moustache makes him look like a 1970’s Dennis Weaver, he’s not caricature. He’s both meek and cruel at the same time. At first we feel sorry for Jan and his subordinate relationship with his wife, but then as backstories are revealed, specifically in a well-written and acted dinner table scene, roles are reversed and our sympathies change. Two of the highlights of the film are Jan’s fellow therapy clients, Alf and Rudy, who attach themselves to Jan and Bente and give us the absurdly violent elements that is Jensen’s hallmark. Jan, Alf and Rudy first bond over their mutual penchant for spousal abuse, and at one point they violently beat up a man who confronts a nervous Jan in a park. Alf and Rudy change over the course of the film as well and eventually develop an odd three-way platonic relationship with Bente which further alienates Jan.
Sidse Babett Knudsen, who was seen last in “After the Wedding”, is a wonderful actress. Her black hair and piercing blue eyes make her a striking actress to look at, and she translates the same intensity from “After the Wedding” to this film with ease. Festival Programmer Steve Gravestock told us before the screening Steen couldn’t be there because she was directing Knudsen in an adaptation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. I can’t wait to see that – she’s would do an excellent Elizabeth Taylor.
The film has much in common with “Fargo”, both move fluidly from black comedy, to violent comedy, to poignant drama. Though “With Your Permission” ends with a Garry Marshall-like finale, this doesn’t detract from the overall tone, in fact, it adds to the absurdity of it all - two people who have spent the entire film physically and mentally abusing each other do find love and happiness in the end. “With Your Permission” is another score for Jensen and the always-interesting Danish cinema. I wish we could do that here in Canada. Enjoy
P.S. Don’t forget to check out Jensen’s other comedies, “Adam’s Apples” and “The Green Butchers”.