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English for Beginners

What’s most intriguing about director Lone Scherfig’s first post-Dogme 95 feature, the admittedly appealing Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, is where and how it falls short.

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, 2002. Photo: Per Arnesen. Courtesy Trust Nordisk.

Scherfig’s last film, the internationally acclaimed Italian for Beginners (2000), is a surprisingly affecting romantic comedy that flourishes under the rigorous confines of Dogme 95. The film’s handheld DV cameras, and lack of props, additional lighting or sound, costumes, and sets—all mandated by the Danish film collective’s 1995 manifesto—afford both the writer/director and her audience a peculiar creative freedom. In the same way that the less than stellar production values of reality television often trick Americans into swallowing unlikely premises, the fact that Italian looks and sounds as mediocre as real life (down to the unflattering glare of overhead lighting and the roar of noisy silences) prompts us to extend its stilted dialogue and plot contrivances an enormous benefit of doubt. Enjoying that movie is akin to the experience of locating the beauty in the very un-Hollywood actors’ unadorned faces: seeing past the eye bags and paunches makes us feel virtuous, even helpful. It’s as if we participate in the moviemaking experience itself, by magnanimously excavating the feature’s assets and overlooking the clumsy measures taken to achieve them. Ironically, then, the effect of Dogme 95 in this film may be the opposite of what its creators intended: the anti-esthetics actually render the implausible more plausible.

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, on the other hand, is an entirely different, er, kettle of Danish. In fact, it’s Scottish. The Danish director may have co-wrote the film with compatriot Anders Thomas Jensen (co-writer of the excellent Open Hearts and Mifune) and filmed its interiors on studio sets in Copenhagen, but it’s an English-language feature (her first, purportedly, to reach a wider audience) set in contemporary Glasgow, with a mostly Scottish cast. Shot in 33mm widescreen frame, with heavy orchestral accompaniment, lush cinematography and sound design, a UK drollness, and a central love story featuring three charismatic, lissome actors rather than an entire ensemble of blotchy-skinned, deferential Danes, Wilbur possesses all the necessary ingredients for a bona fide movie experience. That is to say, the movie is fake in all the ways we want our movies to be fake when we settle in with our popcorn—it’s more compelling than our regular lives, nicer to look at and nicer to hear.

The story itself boasts a dusty fairytale quality, like a fable about orphans who huddle together in a tangle of quilts and rose-colored rooms, forgetting happily that any adults ever existed until a threat licenses them to do whatever’s necessary to protect themselves. Wilbur (Jamie Sives) is a nursery school teacher beloved by almost everybody, including his quipping, precocious students (also a staple of UK features) and especially the ladies, most of whom he regards with terrific ennui. With his rumpled mouth, dark-ringed eyes and flared nostrils, he’s a Heathcliff minus, and not consciously seeking, a Catherineó or anything else, for that matter. He doesn’t even seem particularly intent on accomplishing his own demise, despite the film’s gimmick of a title. Instead, he seems less desperately sad than cosmically, rakishly bratty, a grown man idly holding his breath until he gets what he wants, or at least figures out what that might be. His cartoony suicide attempts even supply a running string of sight gags: As the film opens, for example, he dashes into his kitchen, swigs handfuls of pills, opens his coin-operated gas stove for good measure, and then runs out of money.

Only his brother, the unsubtly named Harbour (Adrian Rawlins), takes our boy’s suicidal impulses entirely seriously. Their mother is long-gone and their father has recently died, leaving in his wake a financial black hole in the form of a dilapidated if high-ceilinged, sun-dappled bookstore. Harbour has taken it upon himself to save it, along with his brother, from what would seem to be certain ruin. A bookstore, a brother—why not a helpless single mother, too, as long as you’re saving the world?

Enter the also unforgivably named Alice, a struggling hospital cleaner portrayed by Shirley Henderson, who’s clocked in ghoulishly snappy performances in every British vehicle from Bridget Jones’s Diary to Harry Potter over the last decade. Alice is the kind of small woman who makes everyone larger appear indelicate and uneconomically sized. She scarcely seems old or big enough to have borne her young daughter Mary, and in fact the two conspire together more like sisters, stranded without any guardians, when Alice loses her cleaning job. After visiting the bookstore a few times, they decide she should offer herself up as Cinderella looking for (a) safe Harbour. He murmurs obligingly into the top of her head, "Perhaps it’s time you got married." Before you can even wave your magic wand, the scene shifts into their wedding party, a treat for the eyes in a Chinese restaurant, glowing with red lanterns and pooled, golden light.

But of course, a Wilbur suicide attempt interrupts their wedding night. The image of Wilbur, a Buster Keaton figure fully clothed in a tub filled with his own blood, and Harbour, crouching at his side, as nude and anguished as a Rodin sculpture, provides not only the film’s most striking moment, but its most telling. It describes not only the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the two brother’s realities but the gap between the story’s glibness and its deeper sorrow—the offspring, perhaps, of the unholy marriage between Scottish blitheness and Danish stoicism.

The rest of the plot spools out predictably and yet somehow inexplicably: In the hospital Harbour accidentally discovers he’s truly physically sick while his charges discover that they are merely sickly, too weak to resist their desire for each other and certainly too self-indulgent to try. Here, at the heart of the story, lurks a core shortcoming: none of the character’s motivations are remotely clear. Why doesn’t Alice mind more that, while her husband’s dying of cancer in hospital, she’s fucking his brother? Are the two actually intended to be so shallow that they don’t experience serious self-recrimination—and if so, why? Although, with their limpid dark eyes and insistent, pale limbs, the couple seems well-matched sexually, their emotional connection seems, well, arbitrary, as does their connection to Harbour himself. What does it mean that Harbour’s certain demise ensures their own happy ending? Are we to embrace the new family formed by the two re-orphaned orphans, glad that anyone can ever find love, or are we to indict that bond as mere emotional acquisitiveness, a romantic opportunism? Why does Harbour simply roll over and die, in every sense of the expression? And, for heaven’s sake, why does Wilbur want to kill himself? You suspect less that you’re not supposed to know than that no one expected you to ask.

It’s as if Scherfig is so pleased with making her pretty picture that she neglects to fuss much over the details of why anyone does anything, an oversight that also undermined Italian for Beginners, though less insidiously. Just as flaws are more apparent in an otherwise-perfect face, both Scherfig’s weaknesses and strengths as a moviemaker stand out in sharper relief against this more attractive, distinctly un-Dogme 95 backdrop.

Certainly some of the techniques she gleaned from her Dogme days serve this film well: the ambiguous silences that normally would be encoded with a bombastic soundtrack lend this trifle of a tale weight, and her casting choices are tremendous. But you can’t help but wonder why, if she has the time to thread in numerous symbols—doors forever slamming and opening, and little girls bearing halos, of all things—Scherfig can’t be bothered to fashion a more plausible back story, a sturdier reconciliation between Wilbur’s light-footed, tragicomedy and Harbour’s old-fashioned, deep-seated resignation. Such qualities can be reconciled, of course, but only if not just one, but all the characters, are allowed a full three dimensions. And it is here that Scherfig, perhaps unaccustomed to being held responsible to this degree cinematically, fails most thoroughly.

Finally, the only fully developed element, including the filmmaker herself, is Harbour. By the story’s end, he is revealed less as a chump than as a deeply tolerant, generous man, capable in every way that his brother is not, except when it comes to claiming something for his own. Harbour stands out as the only adult among a clutch of lost children, playing idly with their toys until some grownup, be it a parent or a new manifesto, turns up to tell them what to do next.


Lisa Rosman


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2004

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