A schoolmaster's criminal behavior raises a debate about how a brain tumor can affect free will.
As Oliver Sacks’ best-selling tomes proved, there’s an irresistible fascination to the more peculiar regions of neuroscience and related dysfunctional behavior. That doesn’t mean every such disorder is a natural for dramatization, however. It certainly doesn’t mean the discussion of such disorders is inherently dramatic. Strenuously failing to convince otherwise on both counts is “You Disappear,” an initially absorbing, increasingly exasperating study of a family man whose actions grow inexplicable and indefensible after it’s discovered he has a brain tumor.
To what extent can those actions be defended as direct results of his condition? It’s an interesting question, but not as posed over and over in a mix of arid courtroom testimony and earnestly plodding dramatic conflict, all of which presumably worked better in Christian Jungersen’s original novel. Despite the involvement of some significant Danish cinema talent, this is a misfire whose main export value may be as discussion fodder for medical and psychiatric students.
Certainly the setup is intriguing: After impulsively endangering his entire family’s lives with reckless driving on Spanish holiday, private school headmaster Frederik Halling (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) either falls or deliberately throws himself off a roadside embankment. He’s not seriously hurt, but in being brain-scanned for signs of concussion or other injury, it’s revealed that he has a tumor. The tangled chronology of director Peter Schonau Fog’s adapted screenplay then zigzags back and forth to show how Frederik’s behavior at work and elsewhere lead to his being put on trial — it is discovered he’s embezzled millions in what he claims were delusionally altruistic investment schemes on the school’s behalf.
Yet some of these actions commenced before the tumor could have affected his thinking. He also cheated on schoolteacher wife Mia (Trine Dyrholm) at least once before that time. Also, his driven personality actually improved in some ways “under the influence” of pressure on his brain — he became a more attentive father to teenage son Niklas (Sofus Knutzon), for one thing. So how can the court determine whether or not a medical condition was entirely, or even partly, responsible for criminal doings? For that matter, now that the tumor is surgically removed, is Frederik “cured,” back to his old self, or a shadow of the man he once was?
Paralleling the Hallings’ legal and domestic plight is that of another couple: Their lawyer Bernard (Michael Nyqvist) survives a serious car accident with beloved wife Laerke (Meike Bahnsen). While he fully recovers, she does not, her many new impairments driving a wedge into their hitherto simpatico communication.
The narrative has already grown needlessly overloaded (including with a late, labored affair between Mia and Bernard) well before a last-minute revelation calls into question everything we’ve seen before — a shift that plays not as daring or illuminating but just plain self-defeating. Then again, perhaps there is poetic justice in a movie about brain damage turning out itself to be painfully wrongheaded.
Carrying an undue histrionic burden to diminishing rewards, Dyrholm’s long-suffering wife grows more tiresome even as we sympathize (to a point) with her. Kaas’ is theoretically the showier role, and he’s fine when given things to do; but too often Frederik, and the viewer, are stuck mutely reacting to people talking about him at repetitious length on the witness stand.
Assembly is pro but a bit drab, as tastefully featureless as the not-cheap Danish designer furniture Mia has decorated her home with — and which she finds she may have to surrender along with all other family assets if her spouse is found guilty.
Danish cinema is frequently enamored with tricksy moral conundrums, which often play out with striking impact but occasionally feel too schematic for their own good. In some respects this film is a little too much like 2008 Ulrich Thomsen vehicle “Fear Me Not,” which was also about a respectable citizen’s borderline-psychotic midlife crisis. Fog’s prior directorial feature “The Art of Crying” had elements of (blackish) comedy, but “You Disappear” is humorless, convoluted and increasingly dry. For all the emotional crises it logs, it ends up feeling like a diagram-chase mathematical problem, one that’s exhausting just to see written out on the cinematic whiteboard for two hours.