104 min | Anders Thomas Jenson | (Denmark) | 2015
Men and Chicken is written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, who also wrote and directed Flickering Lights (2000) and Adam’s Apples (2005). While I liked both of his earlier films, Men and Chicken is vastly better, my favorite film at #IIFFF so far.
It’s hard to categorize this brilliant film: it’s a family drama and a black comedy, as well as a horror film. It’s about a mad scientist (aptly named Evilio Thanatos) and about creating monsters. Men and Chicken inevitably evokes Frankenstein (as all mad scientist films do), but, still more directly, it echoes H. G. Wells’ novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and the film based on it, The Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1932). The Island of Lost Souls, and Wells’ novel, deal particularly with a scientist bent on creating human-animal hybrids—also the project of Thanatos. His name (the word Freud used to signal the death drive) says everything about the success (and the costs) of his experiments.
In the aftermath of their father’s death, two brothers, Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Madds Mikkelsen), discover that he was not in fact their biological father. They travel to the Island of Ork to find their real father, but Evilio Thanatos, it turns out, is dead—which Gabriel discovers in a moment evocative of Lila’s discovery of Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho, another film about the creation of monsters. The three other sons of Thanatos—Franz, Josef, and Gregor (names evocative of Franz Kafka, the protagonist of “The Metamorphosis,” and Josef Mengele)—are still alive, however, and so Gabriel and Elias decide to stay with what’s left of their family, in an abandoned asylum that is also home to chickens, pigs, goats, rabbits, and a massive bull named Isak.
The five brothers’ family life is, shall we say, unusual. They beat each other with mounted stuffed animals, play badminton, eat cheese, fight over dinner plates (each plate has an animal on it), tell bedtime stories drawn from books about species extinction, and long for girls, who are, not surprisingly, a little skittish about spending time with the Thanatos brothers. In the absence of girls, at least two of the brothers find solace with the chickens.
The narrative of Men and Chicken is driven by Gabriel’s drive to find out what his father had spent so much time doing in the basement—the secret of which is revealed in the final third of the film. Thanatos had discovered he was sterile, and so he began experimenting with animal semen and his own stem cells, thus creating his sons, who are all hybrids of human and animal. Their mothers bore a terrible price for this experimentation—another secret locked in the basement.
Men and Chicken is, on the one hand, an elegy. Thanatos (as in, the death drive) looms over the film until the very end. All the characters are sterile, they converse about mass extinction, and the town they inhabit on the Island of Ork, populated almost exclusively by the elderly and the non-reproductive, is about to be removed from maps as soon as the sinking population dips below forty. There’s a scene when the five brothers are having dinner together that strongly echoes the dinner scene in Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1973), a film equally about annihilation—of individuals, family, and a way of life.
It’s not entirely clear why death is omnipresent in this film—what is causing the obvious sterility that dominates the film, but Jensen seems in part to be offering some kind of commentary on the deathliness of an unexamined life. That the brothers are part animal allegorizes their complete indifference to things above and beyond the needs of the body. Gabriel (a human-owl hybrid) is the exception here: he’s a professor of evolutionary psychology and philosophy and has written a book about “humans’ struggle to find answers.” When he tries to explain what it means to seek some kind of meaning in life to Franz (Søren Malling), however, the latter is completely incapable of grasping what he’s saying, telling Gabriel he “should have written a book about cheese.” Indeed, all Gabriel’s efforts to inspire curiosity or contemplation in his brothers is met with incomprehension. They want food, girls, and freedom from being caged. That’s about it.
At the same time, though, the brothers are strangely endearing as they try to achieve some kind of “normal” life, a precondition, they think, to any chance of getting girls to like them. In a poignant moment, Elias says to Gabriel that he’s come to realize “I’m not altogether normal.” To which Gabriel responds, “None of us are.” In the tradition of the best horror films, Men and Chicken features “monsters” who deviate far from anything that could be called “normal”—yet they demand our compassion as they seek, on their own terms, to live fulfilling lives. Frankenstein’s creature—and his desire for a mate—looms large here.
In an ending I did not anticipate at all, things don’t turn out badly for the brothers. There’s a climactic scene that repeats the earlier dinner scene while being, at the same time, dramatically different. The voiceover celebrates life in all its forms—“animal and human and everything in between.” “Life is life,” the voiceover continues, “the alternative never to be preferred.” One wonders, though, at what cost this life is bought. Gabriel had found a deadly secret buried in the basement, which, it seems, is an ongoing horror—a horror on which the “life” celebrated at the end is predicated. Is this life born out of death? Does it matter? The film leaves you wondering.