The days of Dogma 95 seem long ago and far away in “With Your Permission,” top Danish thesp Paprika Steen’s second directorial feature and first collaboration with hyperactive screenwriter and fellow Dogma vet Anders Thomas Jensen. More commercially calculated and less blackly comic than Jensen’s recent projects, pic appears to be a bit of subversive nastiness about a painfully insecure ferryboat staffer who’s regularly beaten by his stay-at-home wife. Things grow more conventional by the reel, capped by a badly conceived happy ending that will temper fest word of mouth and subdue returns in the usual upscale theatrical spots.
Jensen is in a purely comic mode with this venture, and Steen proves to be an enthusiastic accomplice.
Jan (Lars Brygmann), a tall, gawky and stiff super in the dining room of a Denmark-Sweden ferry liner, at first appears to actually rule the boat with an almost SS-scale sense of the rules. But when Jan calls the cops on customers who’ve barely fudged his sense of what’s permissible aboard ship, his boss Erik (Soren Pilmark) warns him to cool it.
Jan arrives to work each day with some new injury — a bloody nose, a sprained neck — and his awkwardly implausible excuses only make his fellow employees even more suspicious of a man who has absolutely no sense of how generally disliked he is.
Jan is tone-deaf to the world, which is ironic since he was once an aspiring opera singer along with his wife, Bente (Sidse Babett Knudsen), whose bitterness and rage at being denied her diva career because of one accident runs so deep that she takes it out on Jan every night.
Combo of Bente’s rages — played to excess by Knudsen — and Erik ordering Jan to take therapy classes as a spousal abuse victim are actually pieces of narrative misdirection. The sessions, in true Jensen style, are intended for male wife-beaters; Jan’s tough-guy classmates (Rasmus Bjerg, Nicolaj Kopernikus), at first skeptical of him, shift to being his buddies — and then, in pic’s notion of theater of the absurd, become Bente’s pals after they meet her.
Steen relies on the game Brygmann (especially) and Knudsen (secondarily) to hold the film’s tonal shifts in place, but any perspective on a couple so archly drawn and conceived is unstable at best.
The rising and falling fortunes of Jan and Bente seem to be part of a graph of a plotline rather than the fortunes of human beings with quirks, faults and slivers of humanity. Latter doesn’t translate very well in a last-moment turn that reeks of desperation.
Despite both Steen as a thesp and Jensen as a writer making their early international impact with Dogma works, the austere verities are long gone here. In their stead, sleek production values and a smooth editing approach (Anne Osterud is the editor) rule the day.