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A tour-de-force performance from veteran Danish actor Jesper Christensen (Melancholia, Casino Royale) fully anchors Before the Frost (For Frosten), an immersive rural period piece that has the feel of a dreary, rain-sodden 19th century novel. The fifth feature from writer-director Michael Noer, whose Papillon remake from 2017 failed to impress, this weighty return to form follows a struggling paterfamilias trying to keep food on the table in a relentless and godforsaken part of backwoods Denmark. Premiering in Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema section, the film may not be the easiest sell outside of Scandinavia, but its intensely played study of agrarian hardship is worth a look.
The 70-year-old Christensen stars as Jens, a widowed and aging farmer who has three additional mouths to feed at home but hardly enough subsistence for a single meal. Trying to reap the most out of a few cows and several unreliable fields of wheat, he works punishingly alongside his angelic young daughter, Signe (Clara Rosager), and his nephews Peder (Elliott Crosset Hove) and Mads (Bertil De Lorenzi), toiling and praying for a good harvest.
In one of the many calamities that befall Jens’ clan, a rainstorm winds up soaking some of his crop, while an incident at Sunday church shows how unstable his position remains among the local landowners. When a pair of wealthy Swedes (Magnus Krepper, Ramus Hammerich) propose to buy part of his farm, he stubbornly refuses, hoping instead to partner with a neighbor (Oscar Dyekjaer Giese) who wants to marry Signe. But the initial offer transforms into one that Jens cannot refuse, and he soon decides to sacrifice his daughter’s happiness for the chance to keep his family intact and eventually retire (with a “liter and a half of beer each month,” per his stipulations).
With Sturla Brandth Grovlen’s handheld camera tracking Jens’ every move, we watch as the stern yet loving father tries and, more often than not, fails to do what’s best for everyone in a place where the natural elements and the social order are constantly working against him. Christensen, who has lines across his face as severe as the ragged forest surrounding Jens’ property, gives an impressively physical performance, beating down stalks of wheat without mercy, pulling a calf stuck in breach birth out of the womb, or else slapping Signe in the face during a moment of fatherly desperation. As the story progresses, Jen begins to see how the fruits of all his labor may be ill-wrought, and Christensen deftly portrays a man who has ultimately traded his soul in order to guarantee both his survival and that of his kin.
A tad too heavy in places, with Roer’s bleak vision of Denmark’s patriarchal past sometimes hitting you like a sledgehammer (this literally happens to a character at one point), Before the Frost nonetheless remains captivating thanks to Christensen and the rest of the committed cast. Krepper (Millennium) is particularly strong as a widower trying to buy himself a second chance, while newcomer Rosager is memorable as a young woman obliged to embrace her extremely limited role in the community.
Nifty camerawork by Grovlen (who shot Benh Zeitlin’s upcoming Wendy) captures the thickness of the air and barrenness of the scenery, with sudden flashes of beauty — such as in a sequence where glowing candle-lit lanterns cross the landscape at dusk. An omnipresent score by Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen seems overtly gloomy at times but also does the trick.
Production company: Nordisck Film Production A/S
Cast: Jesper Christensen, Clara Rosager, Ghita Norby, Magnus Krepper, Elliott Crosset Hove
Director: Michael Noer
Screenwriters: Jesper Fink, Michael Noer
Producers: Matilda Appelin, Rene Ezra, Tomas Radoor
Executive producers: Henrik Zein, Lena Haugaard
Director of photography: Sturla Brandth Grovlen
Production designer: Soren Schwarzberg
Costume designer: Louize Nissen
Editor: Adam Nielsen
Composer: Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen
Casting director: Tanja Grunwald
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
In Danish, Swedish
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