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Slick suspense defines Danish Film Festival

High Museum lineup challenges established Dogme

During the mid-1990s, a vow of chastity turned up the heat on Danish cinema.

In 1995, the Dogme 95 movement called on filmmakers to reject cinematic artifice and work under 10 aesthetic restrictions, including only using natural lighting, locations and hand-held cameras, etc. The movement essentially required directors to focus on the story and acting, rather than special effects and other narrative distractions. Whether or not the Dogme vow made films more inherently "truthful" remains an open question, but it clearly provided for a vibrant, creative period and sense of shared endeavor.

Dogme films tapered off by the early 2000s. Today, Danish filmmakers seem to revel in throwing out their chastity rings and embracing the slickest aspects of the cinematic craft. Even the movement's most notorious founder, Lars Von Trier, pushed artifice to its creepiest possible ends in last year's provocative Antichrist. Judging from the movies at the High Museum's fifth annual Danish Film Festival, modern Danes especially enjoy violating the vow against genre films. While the Danish directors enjoy their guilty pleasures, they still appreciate the virtues of restraint.

The Dogme films tended to make an edgy asset of their shaky, ill-lit look, but Kristian Levring's The King Is Alive found visual splendors in its tale of actors stranded in a desert. Levring's Fear Me Not (4 out of 5 stars. Fri., Jan. 22, 8 p.m.) uses arrestingly crisp cinematography for a character study that transforms into a psychological thriller. Middle-aged Mikael (Ulrich Thomsen) takes a leave from the corporate rat race, complaining of vague feelings of unease. His brother-in-law, a doctor, happens to mention that he's conducting a trial for a new antidepressant, and Mikael surprises them both by volunteering. In his journal, Mikael records feelings of well-being, but his fellow test subjects' belligerence leads to the study's cancellation. Mikael secretly continues taking the drug, despite his subtle but disturbing personality changes.

A more Hollywood film would have focused on Mikael's deterioration at home, but Fear Me Not takes a detour when Mikael seeks solitude in his old hometown. The glimpses of his boyhood friends and fraught relationship with his dying mother add more pieces to the puzzle of Mikael's personality. When Mikael goes to extremes and begins deceiving his wife or subjecting her to verbal abuse, it's not just the pills talking. Fear Me Not walks a line between the grisly suburban satire of The Stepfather and the French careerist critique Time Out.

The award-winning Terribly Happy (4 out of 5 stars. Sat., Jan. 30, 8 p.m.), a small-town noir reminiscent of "Twin Peaks" or Red Rock West, follows another enigmatic protagonist wrenched out of his element. Copenhagen cop Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) becomes the new marshall of a small farming town with more than its share of hostile locals and sinister sights, like the girl in the red coat who pushes the squeaky-wheeled baby carriage at night. The village jealously guards its privacy, but Robert becomes caught up in the domestic tension between the town bully and his flirtatious wife.

Usually in this kind of film, a "normal" outsider solves the mysteries of an insular community with unsettling notions of right and wrong. Here, though, the more we get to know Robert, the more we realize he's as troubled and dangerous as the village, if not more so. Terribly Happy doesn't explore the richness of its subplots and supporting players as much as it could, but director Henrik Ruben Genz has an eye for controlled composition worthy of the Coen brothers, particularly in the primordial image of a crossroads bog that engulfs the character's dirty little secrets.

Dogme 95 alumnus Ole Christian Madsen dramatizes an actual partnership from the Danish Resistance in the World War II period piece Flame and Citron (3 out of 5 stars. Sat., Jan. 23, 8 p.m.). The film tracks the bloody careers of Flame (Thure Lindhardt), a red-haired, cool-headed young triggerman, and Citron (Casino Royale's Mads Mikkelsen), his older, more conflicted planner and wheelman. Flame and Citron specialize in killing Danish informants and generally sewing discord during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, while their ostensible bosses try to rein in their more violent actions.

Most non-James Bond espionage movies hinge on double-crosses and loyalty issues, and Flame and Citron proves to be no exception. Flame falls for a mysterious courier (Stine Stengade), who causes him to question the motives of their leadership. Or is she a double agent? Flame and Citron touches on the moral justifications of assassination, particularly in Citron's difficulties with murder and anguish over his familial responsibilities. The film drags on a bit, perhaps as a concession to messy dictates of the historical record compared to the efficiency of a tight script. It also falls short of the complexities of Steven Spielberg's Munich, but Madsen nevertheless delivers suspenseful action scenes.

"Flame" Lindhardt also stars in the comedy Take the Trash (2 out of 5 stars. Fri., Jan. 29, 8 p.m.), where he's blond and pale enough to pass as one of the Twilight vampires. He plays Jesper Jensen, a yuppie scumbag who gets a lesson in humility after a drunken traffic accident. For his community service, he must work at a recycling yard among the kind of laborers he disdains. Director Rasmus Heide entrances the viewer with the early scenes showcasing Aura Dione's bouncy bubblegum tune "I Will Love You Monday" and soaks up the vibrant primary colors of the trash bins and the worker's jumpsuits.

Jesper's reluctant self-improvement comes as a foregone conclusion, but the recycled plotting isn't Take the Trash's real problem – most genre movies are predictable by definition. Instead, the film comes up short on ideas and interesting characters. After the Wedding's Sidse Babett Knudsen plays the most memorable role as a brassy lesbian who frequently imagines herself in movie scenes. It's amusing when she envisions resuscitating/groping a pretty gym rat in a spoof of emergency room clichés, but her vignettes feel like padding in a film that's only 80 minutes long. Heide's pop sensibility suggests that he has a future as a music video director, but if he wants to make films of substance, perhaps he should take the Dogme vow.