The Green Butchers | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper



Attend the tale of Bjarne and Svend: two insignificant Danes who live in a small town and work for the butcher Holger, a bloated troll with a cackling voice who makes venison sausage for some deer to die for. He's famous for it, and he rubs his success into every pore of his two employees' morose bodies. 



So Svend (Mads Mikkelsen), high-strung and rather divorced from reality, and Bjarne (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), whose mother, father and wife died in a car accident seven years earlier, decide to open their own butcher shop on the strength of Svend's meat marinade. Svend mortgages his house to buy and renovate a suitable building, and Bjarne decides to pull the plug on his comatose twin brother to get their joint inheritance.


What happens next is a Stephen Sondheim musical, minus the music. When someone dies by trapping himself in a meat locker overnight, Svend cuts the guy into steaks, soaks them in his special marinade, serves them to the Rotary Club, and comes to work the next morning to a queue of happy customers outside his heretofore failing shop. Who didn't see all that coming?


The Green Butchers, written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, is an exercise in grim allegory, a story of the nightmare that inevitably awakens pathetic losers from their too-grand dreams. The chronically unloved Svend -- with his high shiny forehead, sharp features and ghoulish visage -- talks so much about steaks that his pretty fiancée dumps him. Bjarne, forlorn and friendless, with a dry caustic wit, survives his heartache on 20 joints a day. ("I wouldn't be able to smell it," he tells Svend, who's proffering a bowl of marinade, "if my hair were on fire.")


Jensen (Open Hearts) developed his career alongside the Danish Dogme artists, who espouse a pure dramatic cinema shorn of effects and trappings. But The Green Butchers, while realistic in its way, is too quietly stylized and too highly contrived to be a Dogme film. Jensen imbues his black comedy with death at every turn, and then he concocts a strangely serendipitous happy ending, except perhaps for the people who ended up on someone's plate (and, arguably, for the people who ate them, although one should never regret a good meal).


When a customer asks Holger, a sort of Meat Nazi, the secret of his deer sausage, he describes how he removes the innards of his prey and shoves them back up the animal's own ass. And yet, despite this irredeemable venom, Jensen suggests that we never know how things will turn out, or who's good and who's bad -- or even what it means to be one or the other. So if this is the sort of bleak irony and gallows humor that fills you up, then grab a fork and chow down. In Danish, with subtitles.

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