Toshiro, with love 

'Mifune' a dark comedy about family dysfunction

Gotta love films that come with their own manifestos.

Denmark's Dogme 95 directors not only have lofty ideals but so far have seen impressive results. Founded by Thomas Vinterberg and Breaking the Waves' Lars von Trier, Dogme 95 echoes the spirit of the French New Wave by strictly adhering to a specific kind of realism. In its vision of cinema verité, first demonstrated in Vinterberg's The Celebration, directors must sign a "vow of chastity" to shoot the films in color, on location, with hand-held cameras and no special lighting or sound recording after the fact.

Decrying artifice in the name of immediacy, the Dogme 95 approach de-emphasizes the ego of the director, who isn't allowed to be credited. Of course, by adhering to strict aesthetics, the films draw as much attention to their style as any studio film shot on a set. But the self-imposed limitations have been highly effective at inspiring engaging work, with The Celebration proving a winner at the Cannes Film Festival.

After von Trier's The Idiots, the third official Dogme 95 film is Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's Mifune. (In America, Harmony Korine made julien donkey-boy "unofficially" under the guidelines). Mifune's dark comedy of familial dysfunctions, despite being diminished by a weak conclusion, proves never predictable and always alive.

Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen) seems on top of the world, having just married Claire (Sofie Grabol), the lovely daughter of his firm's boss. But some bad news takes him from the arms of his insatiable bride: His father has died, which comes as a surprise to Claire, who understood him to have no family. Kresten reveals that he also has an "idiot" brother and flees Copenhagen for the countryside to make the funeral arrangements.

We discover that Kresten's homestead is a dilapidated farm house in squalid condition, and his brother Rud (Jesper Asholt) is mentally disabled, giving a Rain Man dynamic to their renewed relationship. Concealing Rud's condition and the poverty of his childhood origins, Kresten passive-aggressively lies to his wife and stays in the country, seeking a housekeeper and a new home from Rud.

Kresten runs an ad, which catches the eye of Liva (Iben Hjejle), who works in the city as a prostitute to put her troubled teenage brother Bjarke, (Emil Tarding), through school. Eager to get away from her nasty pimp, sleazy clients and a sinister obscene caller, Liva takes up residence at the country house and later must send for Bjarke as well. With the house hosting a call-girl, a juvenile delinquent, a "cretin" and a liar, Mifune lightly plays like a Flannery O'Connor story in contemporary Denmark.

The title comes from a game the brothers play, wherein Kresten imitates actor Toshiro Mifune from Akira Kurosawa's classic samurai films. (That's exactly what John Belushi was doing in those "Saturday Night Live" sketches like "Samurai Delicatessen.") Berthelsen does a pretty good Mifune impression, capturing the guttural cries and the loping gait, suggesting that the game gives Kresten a chance to be demonstrative, as he normally keeps his secrets close to the vest.

With the family farm in a state of decay and hostile neighbors lurking in the shadows, Mifune hardly offers a romantic view of rural life (despite the nearby presence of an ostrich). Nor is Rud glorified into a saintly simpleton. Hero-worshipping his brother, mistaking Liva for a comic book character and obsessed with UFOs, he both burdens Kresten and humanizes him. Asholt conveys the childlike qualities without turning the role into a showcase for acting tics, and the scenes with Tarding's insolent Bjarke go from tense to unexpectedly warm.

Iben Hjejle, a bit icy in her English-language role as John Cusack's estranged girlfriend in High Fidelity, proves far more fiery and expressive here. With self-reliance concealing her anxieties, you can see Hjejle working the different angles in the situation, wondering if it's in her best interest to return Kresten's flirtations. Like Kresten, Liva tends to inflict her worst wounds herself, as the film suggests the need to trust other people.

Some gratuitous, out-of-nowhere violence at the end of Mifune strains the rule of "no superficial action" of the Dogme 95 films. With a nonjudgmental camera eye and seemingly random eruptions of cruelty and kindness, Mifune can resemble the films of Hal Hartley, only wide awake and horny. Liva keeps up with a gaggle of prostitute friends, and except for Rud, all the characters hint at an untamed sexuality barely below their surfaces.

Mifune mostly lives up to the goals of the Dogme 95 films. With its unglamorous settings, restless hand-held cameras and natural light, it takes the audience into its confidence, making us feel like co-conspirators or eavesdroppers in a strangely compelling domestic arrangement. If you're tired of glossy, formulaic Hollywood films, Mifune offers an amusing antidote.

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