CATEGORIES Drama, Foreign Language, Independent, Theatrical Reviews, Festival Reports, Toronto International Film Festival, Cinematical Indie, Toronto Film Festival, Reviews, CinematicalShot with a handheld camera, Prague is a film of faces. The majority of images are extreme close-ups of such intimacy that only parts of the faces are visible. Eyes and a nose, perhaps. Or a mouth and chin. Sometimes just eyes -- worn, exhausted eyes. The story of a disintegrating marriage, Prague pays such relentless attention to every look exchanged and each breath taken by the husband and wife that we, too, find ourselves seeking out meaning in the smallest actions and most insignificant exchanges. The film is one of those raw, heart-breaking stories of loss that we watch half-hoping it will fail and leave us emotionally whole. Thanks to the efforts of director Ole Christian Madsen and his cast, though, the searingly powerful Prague succeeds magnificently.
As the film opens, Christoffer (convincingly portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen) and his wife Maja (Stine Stengade) travel from their home in Denmark to Prague, to sign the papers required to get Christoffer's recently deceased father's body released from the morgue, and to arrange for the coffin to be sent back to Denmark to be buried in the family plot. The 42-year-old Christoffer has seen his father once since he left the family thirty years before, and is matter-of-factly disgusted by what he sees as the man's willful neglect. He goes through the motions of claiming the body without emotion, and is intent on getting the necessary paperwork filled out as quickly as possible.
Above and beyond the stress of being in a foreign land in which no one understands them (which leads to hilarious deadpan moments, like getting an ironing board instead of an electrical adapter, and endless transpositions of coffee and beer), it's clear things are not right between Christoffer and Maja. Their interactions, while not unpleasant, are prickly and strange, and feel more like the negotiations of vaguely flirtatious strangers than the conversations of a couple with nearly 15 years of marriage behind them. Looks of undisguised longing pass between the two, but there is an emotional distance they can't seem to bridge no matter what happens physically.
The great bulk of Prague takes place on the faces of Christoffer and Maja, the camera so close that you feel like an intruder and want to look away from something so painfully personal. Madsen has said he feels comfortable only with close-ups and extreme wide shots because they convey emotion best, and Mikkelsen's exotic face is the perfect tool for a filmmaker who works at close range. Bordered by jarringly high cheekbones, his face is smooth and unusually flat, as if everything can be taken in at a single glance. His eyes are narrow and close together, and his mouth is both immobile and aggressively sensuous; there's a strange malleability to the whole, and a change in his eyes can affect how his entire body looks.
Playing the emotionally distant Christoffer, Mikkelsen's eyes are often hard and cold, not out of hatred or dislike, but simply because it's the only way he knows how to be. Over and over in the movie, he's give chances to reach out -- to his wife, his father's lover, the Czech housekeeper who lives with his father -- and over and over again, he pulls back, unable to open up and risk getting hurt. When he sleeps, though, the tension and suspicion in Christoffer's hard face vanish, and there's an almost angelic quality to its sudden flawlessness. The contrast between his waking and sleeping expressions is devastating, and an impossible-to-miss sign of how difficult things must have become for the outwardly accepting Maja over the past decade.
There's virtually no personal growth in Prague, and nobody makes any sudden life changes. And, oddly, that fact is one of the most rewarding things about the film. In a movie this unrelenting and dark, it's gratifying to see the director take the story to its logical conclusion rather than trying to cheer the audience up with a hopeful, encouraging ending. Too painful to be exactly rewarding, Madsen's film is nevertheless powerfully directed and compellingly acted -- just the sort of thing we all go to film festivals to see. No one enters a theater thinking "I want some deep emotional pain today, please", but when we accidentally stumble upon something emotionally demanding, the brilliant brutality of Prague is exactly what we hope to encounter.