Nasty father-son relations are set off against the high-stakes art world in “The Man,” an ultra-slick, very Danish take on inter-generational rivalry and the treacherous battle to always remain on top. Entitled superstar artists usually capture the literate public’s imagination, especially when they misbehave, and there’s a certain amount of exaggerated fun in the way the lead character is conceived – something like a cross between Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons. Director/scripter Charlotte Sieling returns to features after notable success on TV with Scandi series including “The Killing” and “The Bridge,” plus U.S. shows like “Homeland,” and while there’s a playful perversity in this, her second film, its attractions generate only passing diversions.
Artist-of-the-moment Simon (Søren Malling, best known for “Borgen”) is at the top of his game, with a spacious studio-cum-living space in downtown Copenhagen, a beautiful wife, a game mistress, and lots of assistants willing to put paint to canvas when the great man himself can’t be bothered – after all, “concept” these days is way hotter than “skill.” Self-consciously eccentric in his manner and dress (pajamas, even at formal events), Simon soaks up the adulation of the younger boho crowd while relying on the organizational support of his wife Darling (Ane Dahl Torp, “1001 Grams”). He’s also having sex with Lai (Sus Wilkins), one of several eager studio assistants lapping up his aura of unconventional genius.
One morning he wakes up to find that a wall of the building next door has been covered with a very large black-and-white painting done by a mysterious artist called The Ghost. Later that day Casper (Jakob Oftebro, “Tom of Finland”), the son he never met from his first marriage, comes to stay, and instantly sparks fly when Simon learns that Casper is also an artist. Convinced his twentysomething, strikingly handsome son is looking to steal his thunder, Simon is downright rude. Darling, meanwhile, tries to smooth the tension, partly because she finds her stepson rather irresistible.
Sieling’s conception of the hip older artist’s even hipper lifestyle is full-on: Simon goes from broodingly slashing paint around on clear plastic strips to hosting boisterous chic dinner parties where his culinary talents are ostentatiously displayed. It feeds into the public’s idea of how artists live (well, .0002% of them), and only Darling expresses any self-doubt, nicely written in a conversation she has with Casper, where she reflects on an earlier life when she and Simon used to associate with their peers but now surround themselves with an exclusively younger crowd.
Being appreciated by youth is a crucial part of Simon’s need to remain a relevant artist, which is one of the reasons why Casper’s arrival feels like such a threat: he can be supplanted. It’s especially galling when Simon realizes that his son’s Banksy-like antics have become the talk of the town. Casper has a nonverbal magnetism that destabilizes Simon even further, which clearly is his mission as he creepily watches his father have sex with Lai, then sets out to seduce both women in Simon’s life. Behind his large eyeglasses, Casper is plotting revenge.
The chameleon-like Malling attacks his role with gusto, gaining weight for the part and seemingly enjoying Simon’s quirky mannerisms and antisocial behavior. Oftebro’s career continues to climb higher and higher, due not only to his good looks but a palpable screen presence, but it’s Dahl Torp who adds a much-needed dollop of intelligence, vulnerability, and humanity in this typical Nordic environment. Cinematographer Rasmus Arrildt has made a name for himself shooting Scandinavian series, and easily transports those cool tones to widescreen, mixing edgy camerawork with more frigid lensing.