“Skovbjerg’s sophomore film is a simmering suspense thriller that has more character trauma up its sleeve than its cool exterior would have you expect, but the thing that lingers longest is the melancholic undertone.”
Memories are the minefield of the soul. Often skewed by perception, by time as well. Malleable because our subconscious wants it, or because it is a conscious choice. With this in mind it is easy to see why cinema regularly constructs its narratives around memories, useful as they are to study a character, and with their unreliability a tool to keep the audience guessing. This is exactly what Danish director Martin Skovbjerg does in his sophomore film Copenhagen Does Not Exist, a psychological thriller on the surface but with an unnerving undertone as it tackles subjects like eating disorders and suicide pacts. A study of a woman through the memories of its protagonist, whose perception of her in turn influences the perception of us, the audience, not in the least because he uses his memories to wrongfoot others. This makes Copenhagen Does Not Exist a hard film to get a handle on, as it seems to slip from your grasp just when you think you have it down, but it is an intriguing and rewarding proposition that eventually does give the answers you are looking for and is an interesting examination of existence and the rigours of Western society.
A distraught young man is locked into an empty apartment. His girlfriend Ida has vanished, and her wealthy father wants answers. But does he have them? Sander (Jonas Holst Schmidt) met Ida (Angela Bundalovic) by chance, two slightly awkward young people finding their apparent soulmate. Sander is jobless and aimless, yet unbothered by it. Slowly but surely the couple withdraws from the world around them to get lost in their own. Ida’s friendships wither, the relationship with her father and brother is shut down. And then she disappears. Which leads to the interrogation sessions between Sander and Ida’s father (Zlatko Burić), in which Sander digs through his memories to understand what moved his girlfriend but also hides his secrets from the older man in a balancing act that frustrates the man he is up against. He tries to reassess his image of Ida by going through scenes of their relationship, but which ones are real and which ones are imagined?
Sander’s weaving in and out of memories and half-truths allows Skovbjerg to play around with visual language in order to keep his audience guessing whether Sander throws up the misdirection of a perpetrator or is genuinely trying to grapple with his recollections. Skovbjerg plays around with focus, both in softness and in shallowness, to render the fuzzy nature of memory, but alternates with sleek, razor-sharp imagery that seems to put Sander in a different light. His cast uniformly delivers, with Holst Schmidt infusing Sander with an almost irritating aloofness that immediately puts you on the wrong side of him, while Bundalovic’s initial innocence and mystery slowly turns into something darker. The always reliable Burić has the most conventionally emotional role as a father trying to assuage his conscience by unearthing her fate, but the seasoned character actor nails his final scene so well that his recent EFA Best Actor award for Triangle of Sadness starts to make more sense (the win will no doubt garner Copenhagen Does Not Exist a little extra interest). Skovbjerg’s sophomore film is a simmering suspense thriller that has more character trauma up its sleeve than its cool exterior would have you expect, but the thing that lingers longest is the melancholic undertone.