Simon (Søren Malling) is a hugely successful fine artist living in Copenhagen. There he runs a workshop of young artists assisting him in producing his works, with a devoted wife (Ane Dahl Torp) and a not-so-secret mistress (Sus Wilkins). When his estranged adult son Casper (Jakob Oftebro) turns up on his doorstep – one who has become a widely feted graffiti artist – it sends Simon into a spiralling descent of paranoia over his son’s true intentions.
From the creative mind of writer/director Charlotte Sieling comes The Man (2017), a pitch-perfect satire of fine art and the friction between artists both old and new. It works as a sensational character profile, as a funny comedy, and an effective drama all at the same time. In particular it is a showcase for actor Søren Malling, who brings considerable talent to bear on the multi-faceted and complex Simon. He is a deeply pretentious character. He struts around Copenhagen in a variety of silk pyjamas as an effectation, while holding court over weekly dinner parties with Denmark’s most artistic movers and shakers. He does not even make much of his art himself, instead relying on a staff of young, enthused admirers to do the heavy lifting on his behalf. He openly sleeps with one of those admirers, despite living with a dedicated and supportive wife. Malling plays the role with great power and a remarkable on-screen presence: you wind up enjoying the performance despite how unlikeable the behaviour becomes. At the same time this grotesque parody of ‘the great artist’ keeps leaking realism and sympathy. He clearly does love his wife, despite only ever referring to her by the nickname ‘Darling’. He is clearly talented enough to have deserved his high status. He is also deeply afraid of becoming irrelevant to the art scene – a fear that shifts into high gear with the arrival of his son.
Casper announces his arrival with an enormous pasted-on paper graffito opposite Simon’s warehouse studio. He is soon revealed to not just be Simon’s son but a talented artist in his own right: he is ‘the Ghost’, a widely-adored agit-prop artist in the vein of Banksy. He deliberately infuriates Simon. He refuses to play a dutiful and respectful son. He ingratiates himself not only with Simon’s staff but both his wife and girlfriend too. He shifts between spoiling for a fight and feigning disinterest. Everything adds up to drawing out Simon’s paranoia as the situation rapidly grows to resemble a powder keg. Sieling’s screenplay is superb in the manner in which she builds the tension while keeping Casper’s motivations and ultimate purpose a secret. She also treads a remarkable line between satirising the sensitivities and egos of the fine art scene, and making each character feel believable. Rasmus Arrildt’s cinematography gives everything a cool, ‘Nordic noir’ aesthetic, which only accentuates the growing tension between the two leads.
Ane Dahl Torp is particularly strong as Darling, who knows of her husband’s infidelities but continues to support him – and who dabbles with finding alternative lovers herself. It is a role that lesser directors and actors would allow to become superficial, but despite her supporting status she is pretty much the most fleshed-out and intriguing characters in the whole film. In a father-versus-son narrative she could easily have been forgotten, but instead she remains prominent and relevant.
The film’s climax is perhaps not too surprising, but its actual resolution is a bravura attempt at defying audience expectations. It reflects the artistic obsessions of its two protagonists brilliantly, and marks a very brave choice. This drama, small in scale and varied in tone, is quite simply a superb piece of work.
For Australian viewers, The Man is available via the streaming service Stan.