Review: Wildland

Director: Jeanette Nordahl

Stars: Sandra Gulberg Kampp, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Carla Philip Roder

The gender politics of a small-time Danish crime family come under scrutiny in this assured directorial debut from Jeanette Nordahl; a punchy offering that opens with a car accident and ends on a scream. That description along with the film’s title conjure a somewhat misleading image of a film forever bordering on hysteria. Instead what’s on offer is a sometimes shockingly banal and believable study of oppression, loyalty through intimidation, facades and burgeoning sexuality.

17-year-old Ida (Sandra Gulberg Kampp in a breakout performance) is abruptly orphaned after her mother dies in the aforementioned car accident. What caused it? We’re not to know. The crux of the matter is that, still a minor, she is put under the guardianship of her aunt, Bodil (Sidse Babett Knudsen); herself the matriarch of a close-knit family crime syndicate that deals in money lending and debt collection. Bodil may nominally call the shots but she has clearly been outstripped by her three adult sons, who prowl the basement man cave of her idyllic suburban home.

Warily entering the fold, Ida is quickly assimilated into the group dynamic, partaking in a series of ride-alongs to get a feel for the family business. Here, this quiet, tomboyish young woman witnesses her older cousins Jonas (Joachim Fjelstrup), David (Elliott Crosset Hove) and Mads (Besir Zeciri) as they lean on unseen ‘clients’. Sometimes this manifests as physical violence. At other times – much more insidiously – the brothers target the children of their intended. Collecting a little girl from school and dropping her home sends a stark message about the safety of those nearest and dearest.

Ida is shocked by these actions, but she’s operating within a limited sphere and the influence is tough to shrug off, especially after a long night’s bonding at the local club the family uses as a front for their business. On the dance floor of this typically seedy small-town venue, Nordahl examines muscular, pent-up testosterone, particularly within Mads. His movements become a heady abstraction; a visual poem of physicality that favourably recalls the eye of Claire Denis. Significant praise indeed.

Ida’s demeanor notably changes depending on the sex of her company. When the boys are around she is downcast, framed by the flop of her hair. When David’s girlfriend Anna (Carla Philip Roder) is present, however, Ida is noticeably more open and at ease.

This may in part be down to Ida’s deftly underplayed burgeoning queerness. Ida’s furtive explorations of her sexual identity upend one of her key relationships here, further fracturing any sense of union between the women against the monsters that they’ve indulged and created.

Anna’s pregnancy underscores this perfectly. The sex of the baby is being kept a mystery. Implicit in this are a number of loaded connotations. If it’s a boy, will the cycle of crime and violence be inevitably renewed for another generation? And also, if it’s a boy, might she try to abort it to thwart such a future? Suddenly keeping the sex a mystery feels like yet another act of smothering, most likely imparted by Bodil; a gender traitor and ultimately fragile middle-aged woman putting up a front in her clip-clop heels.

Sidse Babett Knudsen impresses as the posturing matriarch but this is Sandra Gulberg Kampp’s film. Ida is a roiling melting-pot of a character and the young actor takes to it frankly and fearlessly. Denmark might just have it’s own riposte to Scarlett Johansson before too long. Like her director, she’s a name to keep tabs on over the coming years.

Wildland feels so mundane, so utterly possible that it’s occasional shocks pack a mean punch. Though she is our window into this world for much of the tight 88-minute running time, Ida is left out of the film’s two pivotal final scenes, one of which features a jolt so sharp that it launched attendees out of their seats at the screening I attended. Nordahl’s portrayal of criminality may be humdrum, but her film is anything but. Rather, its a judiciously restrained affair that saves up its raw energy for a smattering of calculated releases. In that sense Nordahl again favourably recalls the aforementioned master Claire Denis. And, while not on the same level in terms of sheer sensual audacity – at least not yet – for a debut feature this promises a lot going forward.

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