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Director's Cuts

A Danish filmmaker gives up pretension in favor of cannibal butchers

With all due respect to the inventive barbecue kings who enlivened The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a pair of deranged Danes called The Green Butchers would likely win the cordon bleu for cannibal cuisine. Hannibal Lecter himself might savor something called "Svend's Chicky-Wickies" -- not poultry at all, of course, but filet of electrician, expertly cut from the tender portion of the unfortunate fellow's leg and lovingly marinated overnight before making its way to the display case in the front of the shop. Predictably, the uninformed but ravenous public clamors for more. Must taste like chicken.

Sound like satire? It is -- or means to be. Relying on everything from Jonathan Swift to the tacky sci-fi classic Soylent Green, writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen here cooks up an elaborate, sometimes tortured allegory about self-esteem, fame and striving for success at any cost. He also suggests, we're chagrined to report, that post-industrial Western society is currently feeding on itself and probably won't survive for long. To be sure, these cautions may compel some of us to switch off the reality show where girls in bikinis are eating live caterpillars and return to our study of the classics. It must also be said that, while intermittently hilarious, the whole thing is a bit overwrought.

Jensen (the writer of Italian for Beginners and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) was a leading exponent of Denmark's Dogme95 movement, which proposed to humanize the art cinematic by dumping things like special effects, klieg lights, composed music and the individual directorial touch: It succeeded mostly in squeezing the enjoyment out of movies. Happily, the 32-year-old Dane seems now to have broken with the Dogme posse. If anything, Butchers is stylized to a fault, and its maker hovers over the proceedings like a derelict guarding his pint of muscatel. Good for him. It's always beautiful to behold high theory put to rout by necessity.

Don't ask how sausages are made: Nikolaj Lie Kaas 
(left) and Mads Mikkelsen (right) are no ordinary 
Butchers.
Don't ask how sausages are made: Nikolaj Lie Kaas (left) and Mads Mikkelsen (right) are no ordinary Butchers.

On the other hand, Jensen's protagonists won't exactly remind you of Butch and Sundance. Svend (Mads Mikkelsen) is a worried striver saddled with a huge inferiority complex. You can criticize him, the butcher says, but please don't disparage his meatballs. Laid-back Bjarne (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is a stoner who smokes twenty joints a day and has trouble in his past, too: His parents and wife were killed in a car crash; his twin brother, Eigil (also played by Kaas), was left in a coma. For comic relief, our two lifelong victims find themselves under the thumb of a cruel boss -- a bullet-headed autocrat called Holger (Ole Thestrup) who takes fascist glee in sausage-making. "It's almost mythological," he announces, "to kill an animal and then mock it by sticking it in its own intestine."

Good Christ. Where's the nearest vegan market?

To escape Holger, Svend and Bjarne decide to open their own, competing butcher shop in the village where they all live. As you might expect, these bunglers fail miserably until an accident in the meat locker produces their unusual specialty of the house. That soon brings crowds, a local TV crew and unforeseen success. It also points the proprietors toward murder, so great does the demand for Svend's Chicky-Wickies grow. Cannibalism has its limits as a black-comic device, but that seems not to have occurred to Jensen. After slicing up their real estate agent, a Swedish tourist and a few other people, the butchers learn about a local minister who survived a remote plane crash by eating his wife, and even Bjarne's new girlfriend and his miraculously reawakened, gentle idiot brother are in danger of winding up on ice at six bucks a pound. About this point, The Green Butchers tries a lot harder than you might like to be sweet and meaningful, as well as macabre. But it never really gets ahold of the big social and political issues it's flirting with.

As a comedy about eating people, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's enduring cult hit Delicatessen is far superior -- not least for the nightmarish qualities of the apartment building where it was set. For pure, grisly delight, it's hard to top the aforementioned Dr. Lecter, student of the brain and sometimes consumer of same. What we have with The Green Butchers is a kind of near-miss, wonderfully funny in places but so burdened by sophomoric symbolism and silly portents that you soon feel like opting for the spinach salad and letting it go at that.

 
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