Who are we and who do we pretend to be? Kristian Levring asks in his new Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde-inspired drama, "Fear Me Not". "Surely, we are all fascinated by how it's possible to live with another person without knowing who that person is," the Danish director says.
"I've tried living in countries where people are very uptight, and that's not a good thing. We need a certain freedom. There should be limits, of course, but if we make those limits too tight, something's got to give."
"Fear Me Not" stars Ulrich Thomsen, Paprika Steen, Lars Brygmann and Stine Stengade. Thomsen plays Michael, who is taking a leave of absence from his job – the unspoken reason being that he has suffered a minor breakdown – and decides to enrol as test subject in a medical study of some new antidepressants, under the direction of his brother-inlaw (Brygmann). Quickly, Michael changes, growing distant from his wife (Steen) and his family life, as he finds himself increasingly at the mercy of his passions and compulsions.
"Then it all comes down on his head," says Levring, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anders Thomas Jensen. "Civilisation is a very thin veneer, and it doesn't take much before it starts cracking. Renoir, whom I adore, did a version of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde-story, "Experiment in Evil" (1959), with Jean-Louis Barrault. I watched it when I was 13 and it really impressed me. Barrault's character doesn’t change physically, which is a lot scarier than a classic horror film where someone grows fangs."
THE AUDIENCE CAN THINK FOR THEMSELVES
To Levring, Michael is no psychopath. Nor is he convinced that Michaels's mental transformation in "Fear Me Not" is inevitable. "If the thing with the drugs hadn't come up, I'm not sure he would have come undone like that‚" the director says. "He's had some bad luck. Things could have worked out differently, but life has kicked him around a lot. Describing the character, it was important not to have one thing making him what he is. Let's say, he was physically abused as a child and that’s why he's a psychopath. I wanted to avoid that kind of interpretation."
There is room for discussion. Levring and Thomsen spent a long time talking about the character without arriving at an ultimate explanation to serve up to the audience. "I personally prefer the kind of film that lets you do your own thinking about why something happens. Completely extreme things happen to some people, and there is no one explanation for their mental state. Where most people are concerned, there are many explanations for the way they are."
Ambiguity and nuances were a big issue for Levring and Jensen, as they were writing "Fear Me Not". The script was rewritten several times and the film changed genres in the process. "I could easily have made a splatter film," Levring says. "At one point, we actually had a splatter version. But the scenes turned increasingly psychological. That presented a conflict and we had to clear up our concepts. We spent a long time defining the genre. Now, in a sense, the film is beyond genre. Personally, I'm sick to death of violence in films, and it's interesting to me to make a film that deals with some very violent things but really shows very little violence. Instead, we try to keep the audience on their toes: What’s he doing, when will he do that?”"
FORMS AND TRADITIONS
Isolated people losing their civilisation is a recurring theme in Levring's films, not least his English-language breakthrough, "The King Is Alive" (2000). The film, which was also conceived in close collaboration with Jensen, strands a group of tourists in an African desert and watches as their genteel facades soon start cracking.
Levring attended the National Film School of Denmark with Lars von Trier and was one of the four original Dogme Brothers. "The King Is Alive" was the last in the first cycle of Dogme films. It was also his first feature in 14 years. Straight out of film school, he made his directorial debut with the ill-received "A Shot from the Heart" (1986). "It was a fiasco, a crisis, but it taught me a lot," he says today. "You always learn more from your mistakes than your successes." Instead, he went into commercials. His work took him out of Denmark, first to France and later to Britain, where he became much in demand as a commercial director and still lives. In 1995, when von Trier called and asked him to be a partner in Dogme95, he couldn't refuse.
Levring made his second English-language feature in 2002, "The Intended", working with the actress Janet McTeer, who co-wrote and starred in the film. McTeer also acted in "The King Is Alive". Around that time, Levring decided to break out of commercials and dedicate himself to features. "The Intended", a mental image of the crumbling British empire set at a trading post in the Malay jungle in 1924, depicts a group of very different people, desperately and without much luck clinging to tradition and form.
It would seem obvious to question Levring's faith in civilisation as an idea. "Don't get me wrong," he says. "I think civilisation is a wonderful thing. It's wonderful that people can live together in cities without killing each other all the time. But, I think it's also important to remember who we are. If we only want to see ourselves as a very upstanding, even righteous, race – that's a very limited view of the animals we also are. Unless we accept that, what happened in Germany 60-70 years ago could easily happen again."
It's tough on people, always having to do the right thing and live the right way, Levring says, even though we do need certain frames to act within. "I've tried living in countries where people are very uptight, and that’s not a good thing. We need a certain freedom. There should be limits, of course, but if we make those limits too tight – as the Michael character did in his life – something's got to give. In the Victorian age, the setting of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, people were completely locked in place. Meanwhile, you read about the vast number of prostitutes living in London at the time – literally hundreds of thousands. There really was an underworld and an overworld. And, in our world, there still is."
"Fear Me Not". Photo: Per Arnesen
THE HOUSE AS A FIFTH CHARACTER
Like the desert in "The King Is Alive" and the jungle in "The Intended", the architect-designed house, where Michael and his family live, plays a major role in "Fear Me Not". Like the two other films, "Fear Me Not" was shot on location. Its well-composed frames have a similar texture and grain – not surprising, since all three films were shot by the same cinematographer, Jens Schlosser.
"After all, we live in the world we live in," Levring says. "It's an important part of who we are. Sometimes a room can speak as loudly as any line of dialogue. It's an interesting way of looking at people. I like films that have an inner landscape, a psychological landscape. The film has a lot of nature shots, which become psychological states. At least, that’s how they were intended. As I see it, that's something films can do, but a lot of the time it's not used as much as it should be."
"I was thinking, if you were doing a modern version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it would be set in a world where everything is designed through and through. That's today's image of the upper middle class. "Fear Me Not" could easily have been what I think of as a kitchen-table film. It has a lot of family scenes. Keeping it visual was a fun problem to solve, not just setting up a camera in an IKEA kitchen. I always thought of the house as a fifth character in the film. The house is very open, while the film deals with people who conceal everything. They hide their cards. So, I liked the idea of making the house so open. Fear Me Not could have been made with lots of shadows and darkness, and it was fun to go against that," Levring says.
For Levring, it was important to make the film – which is about control, or loss of control – in a very controlled manner. Everything was storyboarded. The 90-minute film had a 90-page screenplay, and very little footage was shot that didn't make it into the final film. "It's more like Hitchcock would have conceived a film," Levring says. "It's about a power game in an ice-cold world, and the style should match that. It's a controlled film, unlike my other films."
BACK IN DENMARK
"Fear Me Not" is the 51-year-old director's first Danish-language film in more than 20 years. It proved to be a good experience:
"Danish directors might moan about what it's like to make a film in Denmark. But for me, it went like a dream. It's easier to make a film in your native language. Directing in a language other than your own, you have to go over what you're doing an extra time. In Danish, my reactions are more immediate, which makes the work easier, more sure. Writing dialogue you're much more certain about the finer meanings of a line. I would gladly take that discussion with anyone who thinks otherwise. That's not saying that you can’t make films in a language other than your own, but it’s just easier in your native tongue."
"The King Is Alive" was shot in Namibia, "The Intended" in Asia and at one point "Fear Me Not" was supposed to take place in a nondescript American suburb. "I tend to make things harder for myself than I need to. You can probably tell from watching some of my films," he laughs. "With this film, I thought: Filmmaking doesn't have to be hard. There are a lot of great actors in Denmark and a lot of good film people, so why not shoot a film here? Why do you always have to run around and shoot all over the world? Actually, it was Anders Thomas who asked me, 'Why do you make it so hard for yourself ?!' And he’s right".