The ill health of the current patriarch of a bakers’ dynasty throws the life of one of his children for a loop in “A Family,” the third feature of Danish helmer Pernille Fischer Christensen (“A Soap”). Despite a showy perf from local name thesp Jesper Christensen, this take on the troubles of a well-off family lacks the freshness and rigor that made the helmer’s earlier efforts — about more marginalized folks — stand out from the crowd. Reception in Denmark, where it goes out this fall, should be lukewarm to warm, but the worldwide menu looks to be limited.
The film opens with a short chronicle of the history of the Rheinwald clan, who emigrated from Germany to Denmark and built up a baking empire in a couple of generations. The opening montage, which retraces Rheinwald ancestry using archival footage and old photos, seems to suggest this will be a family epic, but instead, Christensen’s film about the give-and-take nature of family bonds focuses on just two people: Richard (Jesper Christensen, no relation), the aging head of the family, and one of his two adult daughters, Ditte (Lene Maria Christensen, no relation to either).
Their needs clash when doctors discover that Richard, who had recently been declared cancer-free after a year in hell, has several incurable brain tumors. The increasingly cantankerous old man decides that Ditte should take over the family biz even though, as a gallery owner, she has never been directly involved.
Early on, emphasis is on Richard’s perhaps old-fashioned view that family — which very much includes the bakery — comes before everything. His main motivation for finally marrying his second partner, Sanne (Anne Louise Hassing), with whom he has two younger kids, is that she’s given so much during Richard’s first bout of cancer that she deserves to be officially part of the Rheinwalds.
But Ditte would like to believe she can choose her own path despite everything she owes the family. In what seems like an impossible feat, she has to reconcile her father’s wish for the company’s future, her own desire to be with her dad during his last months on earth, a recent offer for a dream job in New York and the demands of her loving artist b.f., Peter (Pilou Asbaek), who is more shaken by their recent decision not to keep a baby than he lets on.
There are several strong scenes here, including the direct aftermath of Ditte’s abortion and Richard and Sanne’s intimate marriage party, but despite the narrow focus on Richard and Ditte, the central conflict hardly becomes involving. In their effort to stay away from pulpy melodrama, Christensen and regular co-scripter Kim Fupz Aakeson have written a film that remains emotionally cold for far too long.
Vet actor Jesper Christensen, in the showy part, impresses, but Lene Maria Christensen is not as strong, leaving the inner conflict over her character’s dilemma largely buried. The supporting characters, including Ditte’s passed-over sister (Line Kruse), never really develop, leaving it to the actors to breathe some life into them.
Jakob Ihre’s HD lensing is handheld but with only the slightest of movements, visually suggesting the cracks hidden underneath the happy-family facade. However, the use of widescreen — a first for the director — doesn’t make this intimate story seem any larger, and the colors, especially indoors, are somber. Production design suggests an affluent family, and Sebastian Oberg’s classical score, dominated by electric cello and clarinet, is another asset. But some folksy, lyrics-driven songs on the soundtrack feel out of place.
For the record, the pic’s working title was “The Rheinwald Family.”