Saturday, November 8, 2014

Speed Walking (Kapgang)

SPEED WALKING (Kapgang)              B+          
Denmark  (108 mi)  2014  d:  Niels Arden Oplev          Official site

Director Niels Arden Oplev, whose made-for-TV version of the opening chapter of Stieg Larsson’s The Millennium Trilogy, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2009), introduced the world to Noomi Rapace while exceeding all expectations when it literally demanded an international release, is back in Denmark after working in the United States for several years on the less than inspiring Dead Man Down (2013) with this uncharacteristically tender coming-of-age comedy based upon Morten Kirkskov’s somewhat autobiographical debut novel Kapgang.  Reflective of a culture that prides itself on being the world’s fairest and most sensible people (not withstanding Shakespeare’s dour portrait of Hamlet, written by an Englishman, or Lars von Trier, a narcissist and egomaniac who thrives on being the center of the world’s attention), who are certainly not above going on raging drunken benders, and can be coarse and vulgar and utterly foolish at times as well, but by the next day things are back on an even keel.  According to Denmark in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, Denmark became the very first country to legalize pornography in 1969, where people have free access to porn, sold in most convenience stores and movie rentals, where prostitution is not a criminal offense and is rare among minors, and television channels initially broadcast hardcore pornography free and uncoded at night.  In the 1970’s sex education in schools became mandatory while abortion was legalized.  In this era of sexual liberalization, the story is set in the mid 1970’s in the small town of Sonder Helpful on the Jutland peninsula, where 14-year old Martin (Villads Bøye) is one of his school’s better speed walkers, an Olympic event also known as racewalking, where the toe of the hind foot must remain on the ground until the forward heel lands out of the air.  It’s an odd sport with an ungainly body movement, where legs and arms are often seen moving in different directions.  Nonetheless, like any sport, there are winners and losers, and according to his coach, Martin shows promise of winning the upcoming regional race.       

Martin is on the team with his best friend Kim, Frederik Winther Rasmussen, where they’re at the age where boys play plenty of practical pranks on one another in the locker room, like making outrageous sexual allegations, teasing someone about having sex with an ugly girl, or snapping their towels at defenseless naked bodies in the shower, often aiming for their private parts.  In this manner, undiscovered words are often added to their vocabulary while also generating a healthy interest in sex, which is pretty much all boys think about at that pubescent age.   The opening is mixed with tragedy and absurd humor, as Martin notices the flags are being lowered to half-mast without knowing who died.  As usual, Martin rides his bike home from school listening to the radio which is playing Nazareth’s soulful “Love Hurts” (1975) Nazareth - Love Hurts - YouTube (3:36).  On the street people turn and stare in unison, which he attributes to his singing, while many are also lowering their flags, but once home he’s told the sad truth about his mother.  While he thought she was sick with the flu, it turns out she died from cancer.  His father is completely distraught, hasn’t a clue how to raise his own children, including meals, as that was the exclusive domain of his wife, while older brother Jens (Jens Malthe Næsby) wears sunglasses around the house to hide his continual tearful outbursts.  For Martin, however, life goes on, where he immediately seeks the comfort of a local blonde named Kristine (Kraka Donslund Nielsen) to take his mind off his troubles, as both are in the same class about to be confirmed in just two weeks.  While initially she agrees to a hug and kiss out of sympathy for his mother’s death, she quickly realizes he’s got a crush on her and is interested in more, which sparks her own desires, where she all but promises to sleep with him after her confirmation when she’s considered an adult.  Meanwhile, Martin and Kim discover a pile of porn magazines and make do with practice sessions, a literal rehearsal for the real thing, exactly the kind of innocent boy on boy scene that would never be shown in American cinema, as we remain too prudish in our sexual hang-ups.     

At the funeral service, where Martin nearly jumps into the grave after his mother, it’s only then that the realization that she’s actually gone kicks in, as he’s been in denial, trying not to think about it, shifting his thoughts to Kristine whenever he can.  At the community dinner afterwards where everyone has had plenty of stiff drinks, one man, Rolf (Jakob Ulrich Lohmann), gets a bit too frisky with another man’s wife, so Martin calls him on it, tells him he’s crossed the line of bad conduct and asks him to leave.  In stunned silence, the adults are a bit embarrassed by their own collective apathy, but Martin’s father, the kind of guy that stands up to no one, stands by his son ordering the drunken man to leave.  It’s in Rolf’s rambling drunken remarks that rumors start to spread that Martin’s father has already found another woman (the hairdresser) to take the place of his wife, offensive remarks when repeated back to Martin, so he devises a plan with Kim and Kristine to spy on his father, literally catching him in the act, a rather hilarious moment of pathos, as he looks so pathetic.  His soul-searching, confessional response to his boys afterwards about how he promises to change his life for the better couldn’t be more laughably surprising, as Oplev does an excellent job balancing Danish humor with tragedy, as this is ultimately a serious tale of a young boy’s grappling to find his way into an adult world, struggling through his awkward love and fragile sexuality.  Martin’s loss of his mother is seen as something that he simply must overcome in a story filled with sadness, grief and growing sexual awareness.  While his grandmother’s candid comments are overly bitter and hostile, and the boys trip to a pitifully excluded town homosexual is hurtful and mean, everything in the picture leads up to Martin’s sprawling confirmation party, the day he supposedly becomes a man, plied with alcohol, the object of honorary speeches, yet he remains as sexually confused as ever, where his world has simply been turned upside down.  He’s left in a strange place between dark drama and disturbing comedy, where adolescence seen in this light is uncensored, frank, and often devastating, where Martin’s own coming-of-age reflects the world around him coming to terms with this newly discovered sexual openness, where reality and fantasy have little in common except the urge to experience both.  Love is not just a bottle of booze and a few porn magazines, where crudeness must give way to a gentler approach, beautifully expressed when Kristine teaches Martin how to kiss a girl properly, taking her feelings into consideration.  It’s a sweet initiation helping him navigate his way through this Brave New World.   

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