“Once in a while, although not very often, you find a place where the menu is irrelevant.”
In Flickering Lights, this un-ironically saccharine Danish voice-over is accompanied by someone tinkling desultorily on a piano as if a child had died. The camera descends through the roof of an idyllic country house then moseys through the sort of hazy afternoon light you might expect on some kitschy postcard of an overbearing Paris afternoon. We’re in a restaurant, exclusive and immaculate, teeming with mild-mannered diners.
So potent are the storytelling gifts of writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, however, that he’ll find a way to move you despite this maudlin excess. And that’s what sets him apart from Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, to whom he’s frequently compared – Jensen’s humanism trumps what could be considered tiresome stylistic indiscretions. Yes, Flickering Lights gives us the same thin caricatures wending their luckless way through genre-mashup mayhem that we find in Raising Arizona, Pulp Fiction and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? But in Jensen’s films, a bit of palpable sincerity emerges from the hyper-processed rubble. What’s silly is exceedingly silly, but what’s earnest will get you right where it counts.
The caricatures on display in Flickering Lights are played by all the virile Danes you could possibly ask for in a film; Mads Mikkelsen, Ulrich Thomsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas are small-time hoods subordinate to Soren Pilmark (memorable among a dogpile of talented actors in Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom). Pilmark is exasperated with the idiosyncrasies of his gang, but there’s no denying this group’s chemistry: they bond over firearms-related trivia and the tendency to forget each other’s girlfriends’ names.
WATCH FLICKERING LIGHTS ON FANDOR
Jensen keeps the cliches coming hard – make that brittle – and fast. Turns out, career criminals can’t make relationships work and little gangsters have to do One More Job to appease big gangsters. Jensen triumphs over these tropes by cramming rote scenes together unceremoniously. Over a romantic dinner, Pilmark’s fed-up girlfriend (Iben Hjejle) gives him a copy of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, then in practically the same breath tells him she’s met someone else and the scene devolves into cracks about all the Canadians at Disneyland. Riotous fun, if you don’t mind traversing several wavelengths at once.
You can feel Jensen spoofing the sensibilities – or “rules” – espoused in screenwriting manuals. At the 37-minute mark Pilmark mentions something about responsibility and the badass brodeo slipslides into a story of man-children forced to grow up. Apparently in Denmark this means becoming cultured. It’s perversely touching when the nincompoops stammeringly agree to borrow a line from an Emily Dickinson poem for the name of the film’s eponymous restaurant. With flourishes like these, Jensen keeps the inescapable post-post-post-post-ness of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers at arm’s length.
On Netflix, Flickering Lights is streaming in the wrong aspect ratio with subtitles falling off the screen. It is a relief to find it looking as it should here on Fandor.
WATCH FLICKERING LIGHTS ON FANDOR
Alejandro Adams is the director of three feature films (Around the Bay, Canary, Babnik). He is currently de(con)structing the TV talk show format as creator/producer of Sara Vizcarrondo’s Look of the Week.