Lone Scherfig's first foray into filmmaking, the darkly sweet comedy Italian for Beginners, was one of the most enjoyable foreign films of this young century despite being made under the rigid guidelines of the Danish cinema movement Dogme 95.
The "Vow of Chastity," as cooked up by filmmakers Lars von Trier (The Idiots) and Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration --- go rent it), required, among other things, location shooting, handheld camerawork, and color film, and forbade the use of a score, artificial lighting, and special effects.
Freed from those constraints, Ms. Scherfig's latest project, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, follows up on the promise exhibited in her debut with more dark, more sweet, and more letters in its title/handy plot synopsis.
Wilbur North (Jamie Sives) does, in fact, want to kill himself, employing everything from pills to blades to gas to rivers to cords, but nothing seems to work. "It gets more and more humiliating every time I survive," he complains to his exceedingly patient older brother, Harbour (Adrian Rawlins).
Harbour has obviously shouldered the burden that is Wilbur for quite some time. When Wilbur gets tossed from his apartment building for endangering the other tenants (via the gas stove), he goes to live with Harbour in the little flat attached to the quaint Glasgow bookshop bequeathed to them by their recently deceased father.
A whirlwind romance between Harbour and a quiet single mother named Alice (Shirley Henderson) leads to a Chinese restaurant wedding at which Alice's friend too accurately pegs Wilbur as "drop-dead gorgeous." Thus begins Wilbur's entanglements with the opposite sex, including a brief fling with Moira (Julia Davis), the increasingly bizarrely coiffed head nurse at his group therapy, as well as an unignorable attraction to his new sister-in-law.
Using beautifully lit interiors shot in the filmmaker's native Denmark and exteriors that somehow conned me into checking the airfares to gloomy Glasgow, Ms. Scherfig is able to convey both the feeling of an increasingly cozy family life and the despair of solitude, real or imagined. She's aided by lush cello music that never seemed maudlin or morose, despite the happenings on the screen.
The ever-reliable Shirley Henderson, a Michael Winterbottom regular seen in a number of UK films running the gamut from Trainspotting to Topsy-Turvy, creates a sympathetic character out of one who makes choices the audience may consider questionable.
Adrian Rawlins --- probably best known as Harry Potter's dad --- puts the "art" in "martyr" as the saintly Harbour. Jamie Sives as Wilbur makes the most of his feature-film debut, looking like and coming across as the result of a union between Jeremy Irons and Colin Farrell.
It was tough to empathize at times with Wilbur's petulant behavior and a depression that is never clearly explained. Perhaps, like the lemmings that catch Wilbur's eye on a trip to the museum, he does what he does and we don't have to understand why. It's a slight quibble, and really the only one I have with what is otherwise a clever, touching script.
It's understandably difficult to make a film rooted in a person's desire to end his own life funny, identifiable, or even watchable. But if you've ever seen a film before, you know that this film isn't really about suicide.
Like most films, it's ultimately about love --- the absence of love, the need for love, and what exactly to do about love when it finally shows up.
--- Dayna Papaleo
A stoic schlub of a pizza delivery guy motors through Tehran, slowly absorbing the indignities of class distinctions, in Crimson Gold. It's a sort of Iranian High and Low, the Akira Kurosawa film about how the upper and lower classes are conjoined in the moments of crime that the chasm between them spurs.
The film does not exactly make an appeal for Hussein, the morally indifferent protagonist of the film, or excuse the crime he comes to commit, but some point about class does seem to be the motivation.
It almost appears to be a response to criticism that Jafar Panahi's earlier film The Circle (also scripted by fellow Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami) gave the impression that only women encounter repression in Iran. Crimson Gold widens the net, while employing a very similar style, so that the two almost seem companion pieces.
Both contain a flair for recurring visual motifs, and the portals in The Circle that signaled restrictions for women of a closed-off society find a home here in the little portal Hussein stares blankly through on his motorbike windshield.
European pacing and a straightforward, documentary frankness belie the film's ridiculous tagline: "When you're pushed too far, you might just push back." Hussein isn't pushed, and he doesn't push back so much as act out, taking out his long-fomenting frustrations on a jeweler with casual prejudices.
This moment bookends the film, and encapsulates the poetic simplicity that is Crimson Gold's main strength. The robbery proceeds before a static shot looking out the store's door, the doorway flanked by darkness, so that it presents another portal. The scene is so engrossing and visually haunting that you scarcely notice as the camera slowly draws forward until the doorframe disappears and you find yourself in the Orwellian world of modern-day Iran.
Crimson Gold screens on Friday, April 30, at the Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, at 8 p.m. Tix: $6. 271-3361, www.eastman.org.
--- Andy Davis