Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz returns to home turf with this rollicking speculative biopic of an 18th-century naval hero.
Much satisfaction is demanded in Henrik Ruben Genz’s fast-and-loose period romp “Satisfaction 1720,” and while the Rolling Stones’ rock standard never pops up on the film’s heavily anachronistic soundtrack, it’s clear enough that our duel-happy hero can’t get none. Fancifully reimagining the last days in the life of 18th-century Dano-Norwegian naval hero Peter Tordenskjold, Genz’s lushly produced quasi-biopic unsubtly fashions the precocious vice-admiral as a kind of live-fast-die-young rock star in breeches — complete with reckless hedonism, crashing guitars and a screenplay strewn with choice four-letter words. If hardly as radical or resonant a work of historical revisionism as Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” this hitherto jaunty escapade gains a twinge of melancholy by its cleverly looped, legend-doubting finale.
Beyond the home turf under which his bones reside, the relative obscurity of Tordenskjold’s name makes “Satisfaction 1720” (itself a Danish-Swedish-Norewgian-Czech co-production) a harder sell to distributors; its native title, “Tordenskjold & Kold,” has been sensibly scrapped for the international market. From any perspective, however, the protagonist’s knockabout story would be easy to accept as fiction: A brash, handsome nobleman who rose quickly through the ranks of the Royal Dano-Norwegian Navy during the Great Northern War, he earned enduring hero status with his triumphantly unorthodox strategies at the Battle of Dylekinen, before dying by an adversary’s sword at the tender age of 30. No surprise, then, that in Scandinavia, his story has inspired numerous literary, theatrical and cinematic interpretations — embellished with varying degrees of myth — over the years.
There can be no spoiler alerts in history, but just in case the facts stated offer too much information to the casual viewers, fear not: Tordenskjold’s death bookends the film, albeit in diverging scenarios that offer him very different degrees of agency in his own demise. This structural backflip is the most elegant flourish of a script by Norwegian comic novelist Erlend Loe, which otherwise aims for shaggy-dog disorder: It’s essentially a horse-drawn road movie, as the bored, out-of-service Tordenskjold (“Kon-Tiki” star Jakob Oftebro) journeys from Copenhagen to Hanover, seeking the hand in marriage of an aristocratic Brit with whom he has been exchanging letters. Along for the ride is his weary manservant Kold (Danish TV star Martin Buch), whose loyalty is steadfast even as their relationship fluctuates from friendly to frosty.
Though the pairing of their names in the original title implies a buddy-movie dynamic, that’s not strictly the case. It’s Kold, from whose doleful perspective the story is narrated, who chiefly looks on as his employer takes one physical and social tumble after another on a calamity-ridden, multi-stop tour of Northern Europe’s high society. (Think “tour” in the musical sense: As Tordenskjold yells a lusty greeting to the general population of every town he passes through, he sounds most like an intoxicated frontman opening a concert.) As seen through Kold’s eyes, the great man of war emerges as a petulant, none-too-bright blowhard, addicted to booze and prostitutes — black ones, he insists, for distinctly dubious reasons — and more enthusiastic about getting a dog than a wife. That he’s an oddly endearing idiot nonetheless is due in large part to Oftebro’s eagerly blustery performance; still, it’s not hard to see why one aggravated nobleman after another is itching to plunge a rapier through his puffed-out chest. “Peacetime is what killed him,” Kold observes of his boss: a titan on the battlefield, and a veritable toddler off it.
Returning to his home territory (as well as to his customarily jaundiced comic tone) following the misfire of his Kate Hudson-James Franco thriller “Good People,” Genz steers “Satisfaction 1720’s” racier hijinks with cheerful aplomb. While the film is dressed, decorated, primped and powdered to the historical hilt, Genz, together with cinematographer Jørgen Johansson and editor Kasper Leick, gives it the antsy, heightened energy of a particularly bawdy comic book — fitting for such a speculative riff on the facts. The bouncy ride turns bumpy, however, as the story hits darker passages involving sexual violence and myth-making death. Compelling as such developments are, in a fast-cantering 98-minute film, Genz doesn’t exactly finesse the transitions from irreverence to pathos and back again.
Production designer Jette Lehmann and veteran costume master Manon Rasmussen keep proceedings sumptuously appointed even at their most down-and-dirty. Snugly draping — it sounds paradoxical but somehow isn’t — Oftebro’s strapping, lavishly wig-topped form in hues of velvet that run the gamut from late harvest to merlot, Rasmussen ensures this Tordenskjold leaves a very beautiful corpse indeed. Balancing the soundtrack with equal parts period-appropriate chamber compositions and jangling indie tracks, however, seems only a modestly rebellious gesture following comparable moves by filmmakers like Bertrand Bonello and the aforementioned Coppola; if “Satisfaction 1720” really wants to spook the horses, a traveling playlist of region-matching Eurovision hits would do the trick.