Comedy and tragedy go hand-in-hand in the ironically titled “Out of Tune,” a cleverly executed, perfectly performed Danish dramedy about an absurdist power struggle taking place in a remand penitentiary from talented helmer Frederikke Aspöck (“Rosita,” “Labrador”). Filled with flawed characters who are both lovable and despicable, this nuanced portrait of universally recognizable human behavior seems ripe for a remake in any country that welcomes social critique. Aided by notable production and sound design and a spot-on score, Aspöck achieves a tricky balance of tone and sets a snappy pace. After well-received screenings in Rotterdam and Göteborg, further festivals and boutique distributors will be singing the praises of this provocative crowdpleaser.
The film’s musical elements are woven into the narrative from the very beginning, as charming but manipulative celebrity entrepreneur Markus Føns (Jacob Hauberg Lohman) enters remand custody for financial fraud while he awaits trial. His off-shore fortune and glamorous Indian actress wife mark him as too great a flight risk for bail. But his imperious attitude doesn’t go over well with the prison staff or the general population. Before long, a bruised and shaken Markus is requesting voluntary isolation in the ward housing the prison’s most vulnerable inmates, including pedophiles and rapists.
As long as isolation ward detainees obey both the written and unwritten rules, they can fill their time in remand limbo with activities such as fitness or handicrafts and receive both financial and emotional rewards. But Markus, with his designer wardrobe and expensive lawyer, believes himself a breed apart. He violates propriety by asking the other inmates what they are accused of, and, ultimately more vexing, he challenges the leadership of choir master Niels (Anders Matthesen, a beloved comedian cast against type).
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While the down-to-earth Niels can read the disdainful Markus like a book, some of the others are fascinated by the white-collar criminal’s worldly goods and aura of success and sophistication. Naïve accused thief Simon (Christopher Læssø) offers to spend his one-on-one time with him, while hen-pecked guard Morten (Anders Brink Madsen), sees him as a hometown boy made good and offers preferential treatment. Although Markus may not appreciate their attentions, he realizes how he can play them to his best advantage.
The tight script by author and playwright Lars Husum makes the prison population a microcosm of society at large. There are those, like Niels, who do all they can to help their community. But then there are the Markus’s of the world, who think only of themselves and exploit the community to attain their selfish ends.
Limiting the action to the claustrophobic confines of the prison, Aspöck wisely uses the television programs playing in the cells to give viewers some visual relief. It’s little wonder that one of the isolation ward’s favorite shows involves tours of high-end real estate, featuring big rooms, fabulous gardens, and bright skies. Meanwhile, the newscasts frequently comment on the narrative and provide necessary exposition.
Although moving away from the naturalistic look of her earlier work, Aspöck still fine tunes the action with an eye to psychological veracity, allowing the humor to develop organically. Here, she is blessed with one of the strongest male ensembles to be seen on Danish screens this year. Although Søren Malling may be the most recognized of the performers, he melts into the ensemble, lending poker-faced support so that sparks really fly from the confrontations between Niels and Markus.
The carefully stylized production package is superb, with special kudos due to the percussive score supplied by composer Rasmus Bille Bähncke; Sussie Bjørnvad’s costumes, which reveal reams of character information and the smart sound design by Morten Groth, in which sound effects create their own subtle music.