INTERVIEW. "Teddy Bear" is about a Danish bodybuilder who goes to Thailand looking for love. Mads Matthiesen's debut feature is a sign of a new trend in Danish cinema that finds directors of narrative films consciously working in the documentary spirit and style.
Dennis, a bodybuilder, is two metres tall and weighs 140 kg. When he flexes his massive muscles and the veins pop out like chiselled marble, the superheavyweight is a fearsome sight indeed. But his looks are deceiving. Inside this 40-something mountain of muscle hides a little boy who still lives at home with his pint-sized, tough-as-nails mother. When the shrivelled little woman is upset and acts hurt, her son is instantly reduced to a toothless teddy bear who would do anything to please his mother.
"The funny thing is that the bodybuilders are really masculine but also very sensitive and quite feminine. Kim Kold has both these qualities, too, strength and delicacy."
The mother's iron grip on her son has made him timid. There is very little confidence and no machismo in the muscleman's dealings with the opposite, allegedly weaker, sex. Today's demanding women seem beyond the reach of the teddy bear who can never find the right words to say or the confidence to say them. Then, it's a lot easier to just pump iron and at least look 110 percent like a real man.
Maybe Denmark's sharp-tongued, liberated women are the problem? In any event, verging on desperation, the giant goes to Thailand to try his luck with one of the many petite girls in Asia's candy land. Without telling his mother, of course, who thinks he's at a bodybuilding competition in Düsseldorf to take home another glittery eyesore for the trophy rack in their tiny apartment. Dennis, of course, has his eye set on an entirely different kind of trophy.
THE BODYBUILDER AND THE FILMMAKER
The visual contrast between the colossus Dennis and his diminutive mother, and between him and the delicate Thai girls, is an effective running contrast in "Teddy Bear". Dennis is rarely out of the frame and he fills it well.
Danish champion bodybuilder Kim Kold lends his body and credible acting chops to the character of Dennis, like he did in Mads Matthiesen's short film "Dennis" from 2007, selected for Sundance, about the tight relationship between a bodybuilder and his domineering mother, a theme now developed in "Teddy Bear". Matthiesen co-wrote the script with the awardwinning Danish director Martin Pieter Zandvliet ("Applause").
"Thanks to Kim Kold, I've spent a lot of time in the bodybuilding community. The funny thing is that the bodybuilders are really masculine but also very sensitive and quite feminine. Kim Kold has both these qualities, too, strength and delicacy. So he had no problem getting into the character, though in real life he's nothing like Dennis."
Kim Kold is a Hercules, 140 kg of buff muscle. His biceps measure 53 cm and he can bench press 1000 kg. The director, for his part, is the gangly antithesis of pumped-up quads and oiled-up, ripped deltoids.
"Kim and I are polar opposites, but we share a certain vulnerability about some of these issues, so we understand each other. The story I wanted to tell, Dennis' story, mirrors something in me," Matthiesen says. Kold has an extreme psyche and a unique ability to focus on the task at hand, he adds. Before the film, Kold was slowly retiring from bodybuilding on the elite European level. He was ramping down his regimen. But a lot of hard work and sweat got the 45-year-old Kold back in shape. He had to look right. His body fat had to come down so his veins would pop. In terms of both intense focus and the determination to make things look right, the director and his star would appear to have a lot in common.
"Teddy Bear". Photo: Ruang Ruangruang Rattabunditkul
FICTION INSPIRED BY DOCUMENTARIES
It has been years since the Danish Dogme 95 movement created an effective ritualised framework around exciting low-budget filmmaking. There's a new trend in Danish films these years. With an extreme focus on the realism of the framework, young directors are making features for little money based on what you might call an unofficial dogma of documented fiction. Like last year's prison film "R", directed by Matthiesen's friend Michael Noer, with Tobias Lindholm, Matthiesen in "Teddy Bear" largely lets the framework's authenticity dictate the story. While Noer came to fiction from documentaries, however, Matthiesen has a background in fiction films.
"I've been mixing reality and fiction for a few years now, but never in a feature before," the 34-year-old director says. "I think it's awesome to use realism in a way that involves delving into interesting locales. That's a documentary thing. Getting glimpses into these locales and exploring who the people in them really are is one of the most important reasons why I make films. I love watching films when I don't know if the places they portray are fictional or not. There's a lot of this exploring the relationship between fiction and reality going on these days. The lines are blurring," Matthiesen says. In his case, they blur a lot, though we never lose sight of them.
"I operate in a fictional universe. What matters is my experience of reality, not actual reality. When you work in documentaries, I think you have an obligation to keep it real – the way reality is. But I use reality to create my fictional universe, where I get to decide where I want to put the focus."
Though "Teddy Bear" tells a fictional story, almost everything else in it is more real than staged. This lends a unique credibility, Matthiesen contends. At a time when documentaries are taking great liberties in terms of manipulating reality, new Danish directors like Noer and Matthiesen are taking the opposite tack. Instead of having the documentary approach fiction, they have fiction approach the documentary.
"People should have the feeling of being there themselves," Matthiesen says.
The scenes in his film aren't neatly storyboarded. Shot with a handheld camera, the film is continually inspired by things going on around them in the streets of Thailand. In extension, Matthiesen considers it all but inevitable that an actor's past roles will carry over into the audience's consciousness. So, Elsebeth Steentoft, who plays Dennis' mother, is the only real actor in the film. Typically, all the bar scenes in Thailand were streetcast with non-professionals.
"If you have a real tailor play a tailor, he'll know what to do, and that shows," Matthiesen says, referring to the Thai tailor he cast in his film. "And when we shot the bar scenes in Pattya, well, the crowd really was drunk!"