Subversive satirist Mads Brugger’s latest is an odd-couple comedy about the pitfalls of striking out into the economic frontier; it charts two hapless Danes’ scheme to sell Saint Bernards to China’s middle class.
Nothing provides as soothing a balm to my soul as a good dose of awkward on-screen humor, the kind that evokes laughs and discomfort in equal measures by making you recognize an embarrassing moment. Hence my predilection for Ricky Gervais’ brilliant, original UK version of The Office, or Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, or anything Armando Iannucci (In The Loop, Veep) concocts for that matter. Those cringe-worthy, hysterical scenes, sometimes bordering on offensive (e.g. Gervais’ hapless boss David Brent yelling “There is a rape up there!”, to both distract his verbal assailant and reiterate his own cluelessness) are extremely challenging to create – how far do you push before alienating the audience?
I’ll take a dry-witted, sardonic approach to comedy that examines life’s brutalities over an eccentric, pratfall-laden one any day. That is also the reason I love Danish cinema. Lars von Trier’s Dogme movement introduced a slew of filmmakers possessing a darkly cynical view of humanity. From Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration to Kristian Levring’s The King Is Alive, to pretty much anything by von Trier himself, the Danes seem to inherently view the world from a deeply sardonic perspective. That’s why I instantly responded to Danish documentary filmmaker Mads Brügger’s debut feature film, the acerbic The Saint Bernard Syndicate, which follows that template to the tee with its pseudo-documentary, naturalistic approach and awkward hilarity.
“…hatched a seemingly foolproof plan to sell St. Bernards to China…”
Frederik (Frederik Cilius Jørgensen) is very determined. He’s hatched a seemingly foolproof plan to sell St. Bernards to China (where demand is high, and the dogs are nicknamed “the pandas of the West”). Frederick is busy looking for potential investors at a high school reunion when he spots the gawky Rasmus (Rasmus Bruun). Temporarily setting aside his disdain for the insecure geek, whom he used to bully, Frederik pitches the idea to him. Flattered by the attention, Rasmus – heir to his recently-deceased father’s inheritance – immediately agrees to sponsor the trip. After Frederik’s own wealthy dad refuses to pitch in, they steal his beloved St. Bernard called Dollar and embark on a trip to the gorgeous Chongqing, “a mountain city for a mountain dog” (or is it the other way around?).
From here on out, hilarity ensues, as the hapless duo tries to secure a large investment from Chinese magnates, getting into numerous shenanigans. Frederick has little tolerance for Rasmus’ cluelessness but also happens to be unaware of his own lack of awareness, which leads to impeccable timing/chemistry between the two Danish comedians-cum-actors. There are numerous laugh-out-loud moments in the film: Frederick and Rasmus’ interviews with female interpreters, which quickly escalate into side-splitting power plays; the disastrous party sequence; the countless misunderstandings that arise from cultural differences.
“A low-key, warm-hearted-but-razor-sharp study of ambition, friendship, and humanity’s inherent differences…”
Brügger adds a healthy dose of poignancy to balance out the cringe factor: the duo may form a kinship towards the end, whether they succeed in their endeavor or not; a subplot featuring Rasmus’ deadly affliction sporadically turns the tone somber. As witty as it is, without an emotional undercurrent it may not have gelled – even David Brent achieved a semblance of redemption at the end of The Office. That said, Brügger proves to be much more adept at handling the humorous/satirical moments than the emotionally raw ones, especially towards the film’s culmination.
The city of Chongqing is stunning and given due credit by cinematographer Jonas Berlin, who captures it in its full glory. A low-key, warm-hearted-but-razor-sharp study of ambition, friendship, and humanity’s inherent differences – be it between two friends or two cultures – The Saint Bernard Syndicate leaves a lasting impression and is eminently rewatchable. It may be prone to sentimentality, and its ending may be a bit abrupt, but here’s a film whose bark is as sharp as its bite.
The Saint Bernard Syndicate (2018) Directed by Mads Brügger. Written by Lærke Sanderhoff. Starring Frederik Cilius Jørgensen, Rasmus Bruun, Flemming Sørensen.
8 out of 10