The Review/Short Read/
Double Bill: The Green Butchers + Men And Chicken
Mads Mikkelsen and Anders Thomas Jensen just can't stay away
Frequent collaborators Mads Mikkelsen and Anders Thomas Jensen are back with another lovable dark comedy. Men and Chicken, which recently played at TIFF Bell Lightbox, is a very Danish romp about two brothers, Gabriel and Elias, who go on a quest to find their real dad. The trip takes them to a town of 40 people where they find three of their half-brothers living in a mansion that looks straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. But that's like saying that Jumanji is merely about a defective board game that causes a few inconveniences to the people who play it.
Men and Chicken is disturbing, morbid and grotesque but mostly hilarious. Seriously, humour is one of those tricky things that doesn't translate well across borders, but this movie nails the slapstick and the bizarre in about 101 different ways. It's also a direct thematic #TBT shoutout to another Mikkelsen/Jensen collab from 2003: The Green Butchers. You see, Mikkelsen and Jensen go together like PB&J and have teamed up in four feature films. Butchers' premise is also really hard to describe without simplifying it too much. Basically, two butcher pals open up their own deli. An "unfortunate accident" happens and so the premise, “uh, we accidentally started a cannibal deli and our customers can’t get enough of the stuff” begins.
Some themes prevail through the Mads/Anders bromance... Here's what these two films share in common:
AN UNRECOGNIZABLE MADS MIKKELSEN
Journalists seem to have run out of ways to call Mads hot, resorting to describing his face as "alpine cheekbones...the eyes of a mourner...a mouth that suggests both tenderness and cruelty." You’d think that Jensen would take advantage of those "eyes bathed in melancholy, a mouth you can’t decide whether to kiss or bite." Well, apparently this particular director is immune to the A-list charms of "the Scandinavian version of the Marlboro Man."
In The Green Butchers, Mads plays a profusely-sweating, emotionally stunted man with a hairline that recedes alarmingly into his misshapen skull. In Men and Chicken, the makeover somehow gets worse. Mads gets a bad perm. He also sports a fake lisp and possibly a prosthetic nose, but it's hard to tell. In both movies, the Great Dane is so good at owning his warped looks that he convinces you that he's not "the latest manifestation of the World Conspiracy of Handsomeness." It’s as if with each collaboration, Jensen is just adding more and more prosthetics and wigs on top of Mads, until one day we won’t even know it's him.
STRONG WRITING CHOPS
One common criticism of Jensen's filmmaking is that while his character and world creating chops are incredible, he lacks a certain aesthetic. Especialy when you compare him to other Danish directors like Nicolas Winding Refn and Lars Von Trier. But that's not necessarily a weakness. Jensen's strength is in his writing (he has 50 writing credits to his name, including an ongoing collaboration with Susanne Bier) and maybe we should be cool with that.
In The Green Butchers the writing is this emotional rollercoaster that takes neck-snapping turns between the best jokes ever written about sausages ("Can you imagine anything worse than being stuck up your own arse?”) and stuff that makes you wonder if you're really okay ("It’s only a problem to be insane when you don’t know it”). In Men and Chicken, Jensen takes turns between the cruel ("Do all wheelchair users interrupt this much?") and the quiet observations of how we judge the humanity in ourselves and other people. Take the exchange between a tearful Elias who confesses to Gabriel, "I don't think I'm a normal person." Says Gabriel, just as sadly, "None of us really are."
Jensen's movies don't have to be Neon Demons and Antichrists. His writing does enough of the work, as it is.
DEATH IS A JOKE, EVERYONE
It’s hard to tell whether or not the theme of “death is a joke and it’s okay and we shouldn’t freak out about it as much as we do, guys” is a Danish thing, or a Jensen thing. Things like casually selling human meat to unsuspecting customers in The Green Butchers and discovering a decaying, dried-up corpse in an abandoned room in Men and Chicken would seem like central turning points in the plot of a North American movie. Not in Jensen’s comedies. These shocking, grotesque events are treated with the solemnity and sympathy that you’d dedicate to clipping your toenails while watching TV.
Overall, The Green Butchers and Men and Chicken are definitely two of those Danish movies that would get poor reviews because of our North American expectations of comedy. After all, comedy is one of those cultural things that rarely travels intact. Someone might counter-argue by saying, “Well, if a film can’t be universally relatable, then it’s not really a good film, is it?” But hey, even that argument seems like an unfair way of looking at the world and at art in particular.
In conclusion, brush up on your Mads and Anders by making The Green Butchers and Men and Chicken part of your weekend double bill, Netflix and chill session, etc. Even if it's just to answer the question, "how ugly can a director make Denmark’s Malboro Man?”