It's hard to imagine a film like With Your Permission being made in America, even as an indie film. The film, directed by Danish actress/director Paprika Steen (who appears in another film playing at TIFF this year, Lars von Trier's Erik Nietzsche: The Early Years), deals with the subject of spousal abuse, but it's not, for the most part, an overly heavy film. I know, I know -- there's nothing funny about spousal abuse. And yet, there are very funny moments in this film that allow it to be entertaining, in spite of its potentially weighty subject matter.
For one thing, the spousal abuse in With Your Permission isn't dealt with the way you'd expect, especially at a film fest, where things tend to lean toward the oh-so-serious side of the spectrum. The victim in this case is Jan (Lars Brygmann), a slight, middle-aged man with longish hair who spends his days ruling his workplace, a "gourmet restaurant" -- really, the restaurant on a ferry between Denmark and Sweden -- with a fist so tightly wrapped around the rulebook he makes the bureaucrats at the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles seem downright laid-back by comparison.
When we meet Jan, he's arriving at work sporting a wicked black eye, and from the bemused questions of his coworkers, we sense this is not the first time Jan has showed up at work with a mysterious injury. He always has stories about how the injuries happened -- stories that pay way too much attention to the little details to be true. If Jan was a better liar, he'd know the first rule of successful lying: keep it simple. The truth Jan is too embarrassed to admit is that he's being battered by his wife, Bente (Sidse Babett Knudson, in a remarkable performance). Bente's abuse is part of what drives Jan to be such an annoying (and therefore greatly disliked) person at his workplace. He's a stickler for details, fires otherwise reliable staff for minor infractions, and calls the police on customers who eat a few french fries off a dining partner's buffet plate. Even the police can't stand Jan. Everyone suspects Jan is being beaten by his wife, but no one wants to come right out and ask.
Finally , though, Jan's dictator-esque managerial style gets so bad that his boss, Erik, confronts him about Bente's abuse, and demands that he seek help in therapy or lose his job (now we'll pause right there while you ponder how such a scene might play out in a different kind of film, with the woman as the abuse victim, and her boss threatening to fire her for being abused ... ). Jan reluctantly complies, but accidentally wanders into a support group for men who abuse women -- not the other way around. Once there, he's too embarrassed to admit his mistake, so he stays in the group, where he meets a pair of abusors, Alf and Rudy (Rasmus Bjerg and Nicolaj Kopernikus, respectively); Jan's bumbling into the wrong support group and subsequent friendship with Alf and Rudy ends up having repercussions on his marriage -- and his life -- that he could never have imagined.
At it's heart, this is a film about love and lost dreams; the carefully crafted screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, (After the Wedding, Adam's Apples) takes these central ideas and then weaves the characters lives through them, revealing them to us in ways that challenge our assumptions and expectations. How could the victim of domestic violence be anything but sympathetic? How could a man who admits to beating women be anything but repulsive? Just when you think you know how you feel about these characters, Jensen (who handled a similarly challenging character with an equally deft touch in Adam's Apples) spins the story around to show you a perspective you weren't expecting that makes you question everything you thought you knew about the story and where it was heading. He's a masterful writer, and Steen shows a deft touch directing his story.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the performances by the four main actors in this film. Brygmann turns in a great performance as Jan -- he doesn't try too hard to make Jan unlikeable, or sympathetic, or annoying, as the story unfolds; he simply lets Jan be who he is, and allows the circumstances around him and the focus of the screenplay at each moment to reveal different facets of his character. Knudson (previously seen in After the Wedding) really shines as Bente, the depressed, abusive housewife, who turns out to be a far more likeable and sympathetic character than you expect the first time you meet her. Knudson can turn on the sudden fury and wrath of an emotionally unstable woman with frightening accuracy and then, just as suddenly, reveal another layer of Bente that helps us understand what drives her anger, or shows us the fragility lurking beneath the surface.
As the two cheerfully woman-beating pals who meet Jan in the therapy group, Bjerg and Kopernikus add still another layer to this tale. It's ridiculous to think that two characters who casually banter about whether prostitutes charge extra to let you beat them up could be sympathetic and even funny -- and yet, once again, Jensen's script turns expectations around, and they are. If these were just side characters there to get a laugh, it probably wouldn't be as effective, but in Jensen's hands Alf and Rudy's presence becomes the fulcrum around which the entire story -- and all your expectations about it -- shift, and it's only upon reflection that you fully realize the intricate way in which everything has fit together.
I hope that With Your Permission will get an American release; I just as fervently hope that no one tries to remake this as an American film. The acting is sublime as it is, and any attempt to Americanize the film would inevitably involve someone deciding to shift the spousal abuse aspect of the film just enough to make it more obviously palatable and politically correct, and that would just ruin the whole thing. Catch With Your Permission during Toronto, if you're there; if you miss it there, it's likely to turn up elsewhere on the fest circuit.