italian for beginners(2002)
(italiensk for begyndere)
director: lone scherfig
anders berthelsen, anette stoevelbaek, lars kaalund

. Danish director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) founded the Dogme school to counteract the shameless manipulation -- of both the audience and film technology -- by Hollywood.

Romantic comedies -- or “romcoms” as they’re known by (their largely female) afficionados -- rely intensely on emotional manipulation, both from heaving and sighing soundtracks and cinematography that buffs romantic leads to a glossy, desirable sheen. It was both perverse and brave, then, that Lone Scherfig -- the first woman to direct a Dogme film -- decided to make a romantic comedy.

It’s strange, though, to watch a modern romantic comedy without either Meg Ryan, or a montage sequence cut to an overproduced ballad or saccharine oldie. 

Set mostly in a Danish suburb, Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners follows a group of lonely twentysomethings whose principle connection is an Italian class taught at a local community centre. Andreas (Anders Berthelsen) is a widowed pastor, Halfinn (Lars Kaalund) the short-tempered manager of a local sports bar, and Jorgen (Peter Gantzler) is his painfully timid best friend, in love with Guilia (Sara Indrio Jensen). 

Olympia (Anette Stoevelbaek) is a chronically clumsy young woman living with her bitter hermit of a father, while Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen), a hairdresser, is saddled with an equally disagreeable drunk of a mother. The (altogether convenient) death of both their parents is the catalyst that moves the story along, as Karen and Olympia discover that they’re actually sisters.

It’s apparent early on that Jorgen’s feelings for Giulia are mutual, and the inevitability of Andreas and Olympia’s ascent to coupledom is telegraphed with equally scant dramatic tension. Halfinn and Karen are also destined to be together, and while his boorishness is the principle barrier, they’re the only couple in the film with a passionate attraction to each other, frequently engaging in some very public sex.

The handling of the ensemble cast, with all three couples pretty much sharing screentime, is democratic in a way that's basically contradictory to the essence of the Hollywood romcom. In a Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts film, the supporting players exist mainly to iterate the desirability of the romantic leads, despite whatever neurotic or irritating character traits the team of scriptwriters might have given them. The message, intentional or not, is that really beautiful people deserve love, and that denying it to them is somehow a monkey wrench in the divine order of the cosmos. The rest of us -- neurotic or irritating without the redeeming virtue of photogenic beauty -- must make do without swelling soundtracks or goofy but charming sidekicks.

The film’s finale, a class trip to Venice, seems almost obligatory. In Denmark, it’s apparent that some kind of local torpor prevents the couples from getting together, so Scherfig moves the story to a magic place, where the laws of entropy don’t reign. It’s sweet, but a bit abrupt, and probably as essentially manipulative as anything you’d find in a real Hollywood romcom.