In making my way up north, leaving the ‘heel’ of Italy’s long boot and the stone-y marvels of the city’s “pietra leccese”, I reflected on the reassuringly accomplished snapshot of European cinema provided by Lecce’s Festival del Cinema Europeo in its main competition. The ten films from this well-curated selection felt like a real unit, with nary a dip in quality and an extremely youth-focused core. Running through them is a common theme of displacement, sometimes literal but often merely of the mind. Nowhere else was the pulse of these films’ European identity more noticeable than in the misaligned sense of belonging and shifting living conditions that link all their stories.
Faced with the need to make room for others, and to adjust for pressing political and economic concerns, national borders feel as precarious as domestic ones. In Woman on the Roof a mix of financial emergencies and gender roles drive the ageing protagonist out of her apartment: when society is unable to offer respite at street level, the only escape is a vertical one. Others stave off desperation by seeking change, like the genial and multi-talented Bulgarian immigrant in the delightfully humanistic comedy Vasil, or the stoic farmer adjusting to the city in Solitude.
Similarly restless attempts—this time from younger characters—at abandoning a suffocating family home were to be found in Christina Ioakeimidi’s coming-of-age tale Medium, in Zdenek Jiráský’s I don’t Love You Anymore, or even the gothic-leaning Dead Girls Dancing by Anna Roller.
But it’s the least overt film of the bunch that left the strongest impression on me, ever since its first scene which finds writer and mystery man Sander, whose ex-girlfriend Ida went missing, wandering confused in an alien urban landscape. Martin Skovbjerg’s deliberately opaque sophomore effort, and eventual winner of the FIPRESCI prize, sits squarely in the realm of the allegorical, and while it’s still possible to project onto it some of the socio-political themes the rest of the selection confront head-on, Copenhagen Does Not Exist demands a different kind of engagement, a purely cinematic and brilliantly sentimental one.
It’s curious, then, that Skovbjerg’s chief narrative and visual device still ties the film so neatly to the broader theme of a society feeling under siege in its own home. The main location is a vacant apartment in the Danish capital, which people are waiting to become decrepit. It will become a sort of forensic purgatory where an investigation (without any real authority or stakes) is conducted on Ida’s recent past, in addition to serving as the perfect metaphor for what remains in the aftermath of a break-up. Such a framework flirts with genre tropes and with crime drama stereotypes. Zlatko Buric, who came to prominence as a villain in the Pusher saga, leverages his on-screen persona as a menacing boss, although he seems always to stop just shy of delivering violent retribution. The character, like most of the film around it, feels underwritten and implausible only if taken literally, with Skovbjerg deploying references as a crutch to help us make sense of something much more intimate and painful.
Prisoner of an apartment that will never be inhabited, Sander holds power over his captors as an unreliable narrator, but the film hints that there actually is no truth to be conveyed by language, and we are the first victims in our own retelling of a traumatic experience. That he is himself a blank slate of a character (a scene in which he deadpans that he doesn’t really work or do anything is a particular highlight) adds a tragic layer to a poignant and bleak meditation on the links between memory and identity, and on what we lose of ourselves when love ends.
While Copenhagen Does Not Exist is certainly Skovbjerg’s film thanks to the excellent editing and cinematography (down to the smallest details – hat tip to Alejandro Landes’ Monos being the film showing at the cinema where Sander and Ida first meet), its boldest swing comes from the script. In the second title seen in Lecce where the work of an established filmmaker and writer is in service of an emerging director (after Rúnar Rúnarsson penning Ninna Pálmadóttir’s Solitude), Eskil Vogt adapts a 1998 novel with vision and panache, calling to mind not only his celebrated screenplays for Joachim Trier but especially his own underrated first feature Blind: yet another story of an apartment that becomes the theater for a very personal act of rewriting and reinvention.
Edited by Rita Di Santo
© FIPRESCI 2023