With his first directorial effort in a decade, Danish scribe Thomas Anders Jensen scores an automatic cult following with Men & Chicken, a bizarre black comedy about extremely dysfunctional familial relations and starring a quintet of Denmark’s most notable actors working today (including Mads Mikkelsen, who also headlined Jensen’s last feature, Adam’s Apples). Released in April of 2016 by Drafthouse (which seems a perfect fit for this material), the film scored thirty thousand at the US box office and surpassed four million worldwide, doubling the take of his last feature (which netted just thirteen hundred in the US). One of three finalists to be considered for Denmark’s foreign language film submission at the 2015 Academy Awards (the distinction eventually went to the topical title A War from Tobias Lindholm, which scored a nomination), Jensen’s latest is a delightfully inspired carnival as wicked and perverse as it is equally nuanced and heartfelt concerning issues of family, normality, and loneliness.
Known for his offbeat, pitch-black humor as a director, often resulting in divisive responses, his latest exploration of taboo material is no less subversive, and is certainly the most entertaining cinematic exploration of bestiality since Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975), at least with its nonchalant affront to the ruling stick known as good taste. Imagine if Tobe Hooper had recalibrated The Island of Dr. Moreau through the edifice of Grey Gardens and you get the portrait of extremely strange dysfunction Jensen attains. Reaching heights of near delirious comedy, the film isn’t without a certain streak of viciousness, in many ways a fairy tale rendition of abusive patriarchy.
Two rather strange brothers, Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) are reunited when their father dies. It is clear Gabriel cares little for the socially awkward Elias, who carries a roll of toilet paper with him everywhere he goes thanks to his problem with chronic masturbation. Elias, on the other hand, seems obsessed with Gabriel. Their father leaves behind a VHS tape revealing the siblings are actually half-brothers and they were adopted as young boys, their biological father a scientist named Evelio Thanatos (which means Death) living on the isolated island of Ork. The men trek off to the mysterious island, where a dwindling populous of forty inhabitants reside quietly. Upon reaching their father’s house, they discover three more brothers (Soren Malling, Nicolas Bro, Nikolaj Lee Kaas), all who sport the same harelip. But none of them seem to have the same mother and dad is locked up in his bedroom with an infection. Though their first encounter is quite violent, the two new sets of siblings settle in to wait for dad to appear. But as time passes, Gabriel and Elias begin to learn rather alarming things about their lineage and what their isolated brothers do to pass the time.
Beyond the film’s utter ludicrousness, the basic premise of flagrantly irresponsible fatherhood is somewhat reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s rampant siring of children throughout his illustrious career, and he’s certainly a filmmaker several of Jensen’s films seem influenced by. But what makes Men and Chicken strangely resonant, especially compared to the caricature evident in Adam’s Apples, is the empathetic relationship between Dencik and Mikkelsen.
Dencik, often cast as likeable weirdoes (he’s particularly great in various examples of Scandinavian cinema, like Hotel and We Are the Best!) is the figure of normalcy this time, while fans of Mads Mikkelsen should enjoy seeing the star descend into utter lunacy as an aggressive masturbator, intent on sleeping with any member of the opposite sex in the vicinity.
Scenes of bizarre, homosocial quarrels specific to this particular universe of thwarted desires hinges on notions of semantics not far removed from something like Athina Rachel Tsangari’s latest, the droll Chevalier, and Jensen’s film feels very much in line with the trajectory of the Dane Weird Wave.
Sexuality and violence intermingle intensely, and their three even stranger siblings are all played by notable Danish actors, like Nicolas Bro, Nikolaj Lee Kaas, and here a very disturbing Soren Malling as the actual ‘micken.’ Jensen collaborates once more with DoP Sebastian Blenkov (of Henrik Ruben Genz’ Chinaman and two Lone Scherfig titles), who captures most of the grotesque action in the midst of the peculiar, dilapidated hovel. Certainly, Men and Chicken is not for everyone, but for lovers of the riotously offbeat, Jensen returns with a vengeance.
Drafthouse releases this Danish oddity in 2.35:1 with 5.1 Dolby Audio, a two-disc package which includes Blu-ray and DVD options. Picture and sound quality look fantastic in this autumnal set venture from DP Sebastian Blenkov (who has lensed the last two features from Lone Scherfig), capturing a magnificent but decaying mansion in the middle of nowhere amongst a dying populous with an overabundance of strangeness. A glossy 24-page booklet accompanies the release, which documents behind-the-scenes moments and impressive make-up special effects.
If The Island of Dr. Moreau were funneled into a Grey Gardens style sanitarium of the Danish countryside, it would look exactly like Men & Chicken.
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆