In a manner reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ole Bornedal’s riveting thriller Just Another Love Story (2007) opens with the death of its narrator, who detachedly comments on his dramatic demise as it occurs on-screen. Far from being a facile gimmick, this perfectly captures the tone of twisted irony and the central theme of deceit that run through this stylish, knowing take on film noir.
The film’s narrator is Jonas (Anders W Berthelsen), a crime scene photographer who lives in the suburbs of Copenhagen with his attractive wife and two kids. His life takes an unexpected turn when he accidentally crashes into a woman’s car, which causes her to fall into a coma. Overcome by guilt, Jonas visits Julia (Rebecka Hemse) in hospital but is mistaken by her family for her elusive boyfriend Sebastian (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), whom they have never seen as the couple met while travelling in Asia. When Julia awakes unexpectedly, amnesiac and nearly blind, she can only accept Jonas’s version of events, and he still cannot bring himself to reveal his identity and put an end to the deception. Incapable of giving up the excitement of this dangerous relationship with a ‘dark, mysterious woman’ (a film noir cliché he is entirely aware of), which provides an escape from a banal daily life that he finds increasingly narrow and stifling, he continues to lead a double life until the charade goes too far.
Bornedal first garnered acclaim in 1994 with his debut feature Nightwatch (Nattevagten), a stunning low-budget thriller that the Danish director remade himself in an English-language version starring Ewan McGregor and Nick Nolte in 1997. Bornedal followed up this early success with I am Dina (Jeg er Dina, 2002) and The Substitute (Vikaren, 2007). The latter is a sci-fi horror comedy similar to Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty (1998), centring on an alien who takes over the body of a farmer’s wife and impersonates the substitute teacher of a sixth grade class in order to learn about love, an unknown emotion in its extra-terrestrial world. Taking its protagonists and its premise remarkably seriously, Bornedal crafts a tale that is both wryly humorous and emotionally engaging. Preparing the ground for Just Another Love Story‘s neo-noir, The Substitute inventively plays with genre conventions and explores love, trust and relationships through the central conceit of mistaken identity.
With Just Another Love Story, Bornedal pushes his favoured motifs further, probing beneath the surface to illuminate the brutal banality of quotidian life, mixing chilling mystery, social realism and short bursts of almost surreal violence. The film’s emotional power comes from its double investigation of love and identity, falseness and authenticity. Jonas’s impersonation of Julia’s boyfriend leads to a false romance - and yet, as Jonas repeatedly wonders, are the emotions any less real because his name is fake? And what if the nice Jonas and the shadowy Sebastian were the two faces of the same lover, what if this was all about the unacceptable, irreconcilable duality of the loved one? Blurring the line between the real and the fake, the stranger and the lover, Just Another Love Story delivers a stark warning about fantasising one’s way out of boring, suburbanite, middle-class, middle-aged existence: Jonas, initially excited about living out the fantasy of escaping into someone else’s life, soon finds that the dream is in fact a nightmare and is ultimately brutally punished for wanting to be another.
Read our interview with director Ole Bornedal in the summer 09 issue of Electric Sheep. Substitute is the theme of the issue, with articles on the fraught relationship between Takeshi Kitano and ‘Beat’ Takeshi, the various cinematic incarnations of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, interchanging identities in Joseph Losey’s films, the paradoxes of black and white twins in offbeat lost classic Suture, not to mention cross-dressing criminals, androids and body snatchers. Also in this issue: interview with Marc Caro, profile of whiz-kid animator David OReilly, comic strip review of Hardware and The Phantom Band’s favourite films.