Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Lost in translation : Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself

3/10

aka Wilbur / Wilbur begår selvmord : Denmark (Den/UK/Swe/Fr) 2002 : Lone SCHERFIG : 106 mins

Now that the dogme fad has well and truly passed, what next for Denmark’s ambitious mob of young directors? Lars Von Trier and friends’ much-publicised ‘vow of chastity’ rules snared enough attention to ensure more Danish movies obtained international recognition and release than ever before, but the dogme ‘seal of approval’ has become so associated with a particular juncture in recent film history that it’s more likely to repel than attract audiences.

The nature of the first post-dogme phase now seems clear, however, as all four original vow ‘signatories’ have followed up their dogme film with one in English: Von Trier’s US-set Dancer in the Dark, Vinterberg’s globetrotting It’s All About Love, Kragh-Jacobsen’s Scots-flavoured Skaggerak and Levring’s African adventure The Intended. Von Trier has always tended towards English-speaking films, of course, right back to his 1984 debut with The Element of Crime – and Levring’s dogme film The King Is Alive was set in Namibia and almost entirely Anglophone.

But factor in English-language movies by non-signatory Scandinavians – including Hans Petter Molland’s Aberdeen, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s US-filmed Fear X – and it’s clear there’s a distinct trend taking shape. Speak to any young Scandinavian director and they’ll tell you the same thing: in today’s very tough financial climate, potential investors would much rather they made their films in English than their ‘tricky’ native tongues, so as not to alienate those mainstream cinemagoers who remain stubbornly resistant to subtitles.

Because while Lone Scherfig’s accessible dogme debut Italian For Beginners obtained distribution in many overseas territories, it never broke out of the arthouse ‘ghetto’ and into the multiplexes. Her follow-up Wilbur, has, in contrast been confidently tipped for “international box office” success by industry bible Variety. It’s an English-language film set and filmed, like Skaggerak, Aberdeen and Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, in Scotland – a handy point-of-entry to the Anglo-speaking world for Scandinavian talent, due to its (relative) geographical proximity, similarly chilly climate and the availability of funding (in this case from Scottish Screen and the Glasgow Film Fund).

There’s also no shortage of Scandinavians living in Scotland at the moment, especially on the east coast where North Sea Oil remains a major source of employment for locals and ‘viking’ visitors alike. In addition, Scottish football is full of Scandi talent – as seen in Channel 4’s comedy-drama series The Book Club, itself something of an Italian For Beginners clone.

Wilbur, however, makes its ‘token Dane’ a medic – Mads Mikkelsen as Dr Horst, a secondary figure who wryly observes the tragic-comic love triangle unfolding between the suicidal title character (Jamie Sives), his brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins, from Breaking the Waves) and a single mother, Alice (Shirley Henderson). Wilbur, in between cack-handed suicide attempts, teaches nursery school children. Harbour runs the family firm, a dilapidated Glasgow second-hand bookshop where Alice is a regular customer,

selling Harbour the abandoned books she finds during her job as a hospital cleaner. Attracted to both brothers, she marries Harbour – who doesn’t tell her that he’s suffering from a life-threatening ailment.

Wilbur aims to blend more than just Danish and Scottish film-making – the script, by Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, aims for a tricky combination of offbeat humour, touching romance and tear-jerking drama. But what should be a delicate, graceful hybrid goes badly awry: even audiences unaware of the film’s background will detect severe flaws in the project’s creative DNA – what results is such a lumpy, uneven, oddball mutation that doesn’t bode well for future similar experiments except as a warning of what not to do.

The first lesson is that it’s vital to get the details right – starting with dialogue, accents, and even names. For an English-language movie to work, the scriptwriting process must involve at least one person for whom it’s the native tongue. As anyone who’s seen Scandinavian footballers interviewed will know, just because their English is technically perfect that doesn’t mean you’d ever think they were actually English themselves. The give-away here is that only Mikkelsen’s Danish-accented lines sound right – with everyone else, viewers may recall Basil Fawlty’s exasperated question to Bernard Cribbins’ pernickety guest in Fawlty Towers: “Why don’t you talk properly?”

Wilbur might well work in Danish, but nearly everything about it feels distractingly awkward – from that bald mouthful of a title down to the absurd names given to Wilbur and, especially, Harbour. Every scene feels as though much has been lost in translation, resulting in a gratingly whimsical kind of stylisation that prevents the build-up of any kind of comic, romantic or dramatic momentum. It doesn’t help that the film is so in love with its own supposed cuteness – the twee script is full of very strained ‘quirkiness’ in which joke after joke falls bafflingly flat. It’s depressing to note that by far the ‘funniest’ gag involves a drunken adult throwing up over a child’s party dress.

The actors, meanwhile, don’t seem to be getting much help from behind the camera – every character seems to belong in a different film – and there’s no excusing Rawlins’ shocking attempts at a Scottish accent. As Wilbur, Sives doesn’t generate much sympathy – it’s never made clear why he’s so unsuccessful at killing himself, though by the end many viewers will probably find themselves wishing he’d just get on with it. Henderson, however, is bomb-proof – as she showed in the even less mirthful Once Upon A Time in the Midlands – but she’s again looking like the British Rosario Dawson, a terrific talent stuck in an apparently endless series of unworthy projects.

As her daughter Mary, McKinlay inevitably doesn’t fare so well – like all the children in the film, she comes across as distractingly wooden: a classic tell-tale that the director can’t handle actors. What’s needed for this kind of dark, downbeat, sentimental comedy is the touch of an Aki Kaurismaki – who traversed the hazardous Anglophone route way back in 1990 with I Hired A Contract Killer with much more successful results in terms of playing suidice for laughs. Scherfig, by contrast, crudely churns all the ingredients together and is helpless to avoid them curdling into tastelessness – as a final act of desperation, she cranks up the sentimental muzak for a shameless Christmas finale. It’s a counterproductive move, but by this stage the project feels so misbegotten as to be beyond saving: putting a viking in a kilt, it seems, doesn’t make him any more of a Scotsman.

4th April, 2003
(seen 8th February, CinemaxX Berlin – Berlin Film Festival)

click here for for the short review of Wilbur.

Or check out other film reviews from the Berlin Film Festival 2003.

by Neil Young