Monday 30 November 2020

The Ringmaster (Denmark 2018: Dir Søren Juul Petersen)

Opening with a warning, parodying Edward Van Sloan's fourth wall breaking caution to the audience at the beginning of Frankenstein (1931), I found myself wondering whether to expect a film as shocking as the audience of nearly one hundred years ago found James Whale's breakthrough horror movie. And presumably that's the effect that Søren Juul Petersen wants to achieve here; nice try.

While the entire population of Denmark gets ready to stay home and tune into to a football match, one where the country have made it to the final, two girls of very different backgrounds staff a petrol station night shift. Agnes (Anne Bergfeld), whose father owns the station, is a diligent student hoping to sneak in the back and work on her college thesis, having been dropped off by doctor boyfriend Benjamin (Kristopher Fabricius), leaving Belinda (Karin Michelsen) to front up the counter, text her disinterested petty criminal boyfriend Kenny and deal with being thrown out of her mother's home for continuing to be support her bloke.

But the quiet shift is about to change for the worse; flash forward scenes showing the women being abused confirm this. A series of shady looking customers come into the station at intervals; they're not bad as such but they're clearly up to something; and Belinda thinks she sees a woman in the back seat of one of the cars entering the station, possibly drugged, her mouth sealed with duct tape.

The growing unease of Agnes and Belinda, clearly vulnerable in their remote outpost, takes up most of the first half of the film; it's handled well and Bergfeld and Michelsen, both making their feature film debuts, are appealing leads, with Agnes as the cool headed psychology student attempting to understand why people like Belinda are attracted to bad boys like Kenny.

The movie's second half sadly reverts to that rather tired old standby, t*rture porn. The setup is familiar; a 'Ringmaster' (sleazily played by Icelandic actor Damon Younger) streams a live show, 'Escapismus', to an internet audience, while a group of elites behind a two way mirror get their kicks viewing the action. After a first act, watching Benjamin get tortured and eventually killed, the Ringmaster turns his attention to Agnes and Belinda; will they have the strength to survive his ministrations?

Based on the novel 'Finale' by Steen Langstrup (and the title under which the film originally played festivals) The Ringmaster has a lot of very well done elements - it's crisply photographed and its fracturing of the narrative is intriguing - but honestly we've seen it all before, and basing a story around innocent women suffering at the hands of men is very much last decade's thing, even if the point is to show how much people can endure pain, and also what we as an audience are prepared to call 'entertainment.'

An opening narration disabuses the audience of any thoughts that Denmark is just a land of fairy tales and happy people in terms of what we're about to see, but to me it merely informed the fact that Danish filmmakers need to find less tiresome subjects for their movies, no matter how well their product may be put together.

The Ringmaster will be available on DVD & Digital Download from 30th November and may hit cinemas when they re-open.

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