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Complex characters, fine writing and the Danish language will have you eating up 'The Green Butchers'

There's no one who doesn't enjoy a good film about C.H.U.D.s (Cannibalistic Humanoids from Upper Denmark). Yet, so few good films about C.H.U.D.s have been made. There was, of course, the classic 1984 film C.H.U.D. , but the characters in that were only questionably of Danish origin.

Thus, it has been a long wait for The Green Butchers, probably the first film about flesh-eating Danes since Dagmars Heta Trosor. Unlike that earlier treasure, here the pants stay on, but the limbs come flying off when Bjarne and Svend decide to leave their wage-slave lives behind and open their own butcher shop.

Unfortunately, Bjarne is a self-centered, anti-social malcontent whose hobbies including killing animals, boiling the meat off dead animal bodies and arranging the skeletons of said animals in grotesque grand guignol around his messy bachelor pad.

Luckily, he's balanced by Svend, a self-obsessed neurotic whose response to every relationship issue is to discuss his feelings about steaks. Not that those feelings are complex--he just loves steaks.

When they team up, guess who goes off the deep end and starts turning people into some of the most delicious marinated fillets that have ever shown up south of Sweden and north of Germany? Nope, it's Svend!

But there's more to The Green Butchers than the killing and eating of human (albeit Danish) beings. There'd better be, too, because the topic of butchers selling human flesh has already been done to death in films like Delicatessen and Sweeney Todd. So, lacking Sweeney Todd's operatic score or the bizarre visual effects of Delicatessen, Anders Thomas Jensen, the writer/director of Green Butchers, goes in another direction--verbal comedy.

And, since this film is in Danish, with the inferior English language relegated to its deserved position in the subtitles, you can have the added pleasure of reading such comedy lines as, "You just sold his thigh, dumb-ass!" It's probably funnier when you get to read it and see Nikolaj Lie Kaas say it, because NLK (as his friends call him) gives a gripping performance as the disturbed (but not as disturbed as Svend) Bjarne.

Mads Mikkelsen is even better as Svend, the quintessential loser whose hair has receded in a perfectly straight line such that it bisects his head from ear to ear. It's the nightmare version of male pattern baldness, and only serves to highlight the constant beads of sweat that dot his unattractive forehead.

Svend is the kind of socially incompetent nerd who, when asked by a customer for sausage, unselfconsciously responds with, "To kill an animal and then stick it in its own intestines ... can you think of anything worse than being stuck up your own ass? That's one of our small pleasures."

While the opening third of the film gets constant laughs, the comedy stops dead about halfway through, and the tone changes from light and funny to disturbing and serious. I guess that's what happens to Danes when you start eating them.

As the film approaches this juicy midsection, Bjarne's comatose twin brother awakes and starts causing trouble. He begins dropping in on the butcher shop, waving around dead animals and intruding in Bjarne's relationship with his new girlfriend, Astrid (played by the strangely beautiful Line Kruse. Well, she's strangely beautiful by American standards. She's pretty much your average Dane. Have you seen these people? If America was serious about its national defense, it would be sending spies to Denmark to steal their DNA and use it to make an army of supermodels.).

This middle third of the film bogs down a bit under the weight of its turn toward the serious and the addition of several sub-plots. Things do pick up again, though, as Svend's murderous instincts and love of fame get the better of him, and the final section is worth the wait.

Director Jensen is probably best known in America (to the extent that he's known at all) as the director of the dogme films Open Hearts and The King Is Alive. While Green Butchers is in no way a dogme film, it does benefit from Jensen's experience at making small, affordable movies that nonetheless pack a large punch. When you can't buy it in special effects, you have to turn up the human drama, and I speak from experience when I say that there are few things more dramatic than accidentally eating another human being.

This is also the film's greatest flaw. While Jensen's characters are rich and familiar in their humanity, they're also markedly original. Svend, especially, conveys something about social awkwardness that's never really been captured before, not even in Molly Ringwald's finest moments in a John Hughes film. (You know, the one in which Long Duk Dong does that crazy dance that's funny but also sad?) So it's a minor disappointment that Jensen felt the need to go with the cannibalism plot, because it seems like a cheap trick, and one that's been done many times before.

Nonetheless, the script, acting and especially the complexity of the characters make The Green Butchers an interesting and engaging film, even when some of its triter plot elements keep it from being great.

More by James DiGiovanna

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