Life at Large

in 25th Moscow International Film Festival

by Anita Piotrowska

Skagerrak.Admittedly, the overall artistic level of the Moscow Film Festival fell somewhat short of the expectations. It just felt as though some of the film entrants had made it to the Official Selection either solely thanks to their country of origin, or in open recognition of some or other eminent director’s name. All the more happy were we then to welcome to the festival’s screen Skagerrak, a Danish – Swedish – British co-production, directed by Søren Kragh – Jacobsen.

A few years back this director really made a name to himself with Mifune, a third consecutive film title endorsed by the Dogme ’95 certificate, so it was only to be expected that Jacobsen would be quite happy to cash in on his initial success. Contrary to the expectations, over the years Jacobsen matured enough as a filmmaker to set himself free from any artificially imposed constraints and follow his very own path of artistic development without looking back.

Skagerrak is a kind of picture that does not yield easily to interpretation. The actual story line, anchored around the life and times of a pretty effervescent 30-year old girl who arrives in Northern Ireland with a close friend of hers in town and decides to become a surrogate mother for a fee, and then, with the cash in hand tries to terminate her pregnancy, seems as much incredulous, as overexploited by the B-class movies. Consequently, it demanded of both the director and his actors an audaciously new approach to the task, totally unfettered by popular conventions.

Iben Hjejle in the lead, graciously assisted by Bronagh Gallagher as the supporting actress, as well as scores of well sketched, vivid characters densely populating the entire film, really deserve a credit for their gallant efforts. The plot cunningly lurches between the comical and the tragic, occasionally giving the impression of a realistically rendered drama, then suddenly turning into a modern-day fantasy, sometimes nothing short of a Biblical parable. Now and again, however, all these dramatic layers seem to be interwoven tightly enough, so as not to cause any disorientation or undue discomfort to a viewer. One can truly enjoy sudden twists of the plot without being overly distracted from appreciating the stylistic diversity in the director’s approach to his craft.

What really moves one most in Jacobsen’s picture, though, is his warm and appreciative attitude towards the lady protagonist, openly apologetic of all her faults and funny idiosyncrasies, making her look truly inspiring and worthy of respect.

Marie, whilst running away from her destiny, meets all sorts of weird characters on her way, some of them rather crude: a vet hired by an infertile couple, who gives chase to the pregnant girl, with a view to making sure that she has a safe delivery no matter what, or the crew of the eponymous Skagerrak, a Glasgow garage, who are mostly concerned about their long outstanding wages and would be only to happy to relieve the girl from the money she had received from the couple in lieu of her surrogate motherhood service.

None of these weirdos seem too grotesque, or overexposed to ridicule, though. Each one of them, despite their apparent commonness, is in a way uncannily reminiscent of a guardian angel, whose principal task and prerogative is just to make sure that nothing untoward happens to the pregnant girl, especially when it really comes to the crunch. And this is precisely what gives real credence to this utterly incredulous story, at the same time effectively binding it together.

On the other hand, both the actual choice of musical score (Sweet Dreams by Annie Lennox) and the suspiciously optimistic finale to the plot itself, clearly suggest that things should best be taken with a pinch of salt.

Skagerrak is neither about psychological complexities, nor is it an in-depth analysis of the internal misgivings suffered by the lady protagonist, it is in fact about telling the whole story in such a way, that upon leaving the cinema a viewer would have a profound sense of having gone through a cathartic experience.

Having said that, in the case of Jacobsen’s film this experience falls somewhat short of the sensation shared when watching an antique Greek tragedy unfold on stage, although one thing seems certain enough: Jacobsen successfully managed not to fall hostage of cheap sensationalism and utter banality in his warm glorification of life at large.