'Itsi Bitsi': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Marie Tourell Soderberg and Joachim Fjelstrup in 'Itsi Bitsi'
Slick and stylish, but not terribly involving

Ole Christian Madsen dramatizes the soul-searching, consciousness-altering and ultimately tragic journey of a real-life 1960s Danish psychedelic rock star

The protagonist of Itsi Bitsi goes on a search for himself that takes him through Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and into South Asia, and Danish director Ole Christian Madsen's countercultural odyssey is no less restless in its quest to find a definitive tone. Wildly sexy and freewheeling in its early action, it progresses through interludes of picaresque adventure, talky ideological debate, hippie-dippy lyricism, druggy hallucination and melancholy romantic longing. All that adds up to a vibrantly packaged film that rarely slows down long enough to allow us to connect with its central conflict of an unsustainable love.

In many ways, the helter-skelter approach of Madsen (SuperClasico) and co-screenwriter Bo Hr. Hansen is a natural fit for the material. The film chronicles the eventful adult life of iconic Danish 1960s music figure Eik Skaloe, who formed the psychedelic rock band Steppeulvene (its name derived from Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf). Their only album, 1967's Hip, achieved cult status in national rock history. Skaloe committed suicide the year after its release, his body found in the remote border region of India and Pakistan.

The subject will be obscure to most audiences outside of Scandinavia, making the film primarily of local interest. But flower-power nostalgia could help steer a passage into some markets, as will the handsomely shot scenic locations and the generous displays of skin and uninhibited sex.

The film opens on the tragic final act of Skaloe's life before rewinding to less desperate times. It picks up in Copenhagen in 1962, where 19-year-old Eik (promising newcomer Joachim Fjelstrup) is part of the generational ferment sweeping across Europe. Arrested during a peaceful anti-nuclear protest, he meets beautiful, bracingly direct fellow activist Iben (Marie Tourell Soderberg) in prison, and while conventional monogamous unions are considered bourgeois, it's clear she's the woman with whom he wants to spend his life. He nicknames her "Itsi Bitsi."

While Madsen's onscreen addition of animated flowers and bees is a little precious, the romantic idyll of the couple's early time together in a garden cottage is conveyed with infectious happiness, even if the anti-establishment discussions among their protest group tend to drag on.

But when Eik, inspired by reading Camus and Sartre as well as Hesse, takes a trip to Paris to nurture the existentialist poet within, Iben hooks up with stuttering National Guard deserter Henrik (Johannes Nymark). Eik returns to find himself forced into sharing her, the one plus about the situation being the Bob Dylan album Henrik brought back from Canada.

That threesome occasions a lot of bedroom antics, as Eik and Henrik battle for Iben's affections via athletic feats of sexual congress, first in Denmark and then on the road as they travel in a van to Spain. It also establishes a pattern in which Iben's refusal to commit to just one man means that Eik, a sad-eyed scarecrow with a mop of haystack hair, is constantly competing with rivals who are more handsome, masculine or charismatic.

When Eik and Iben graduate from hashish to harder drugs in a beatnik rooftop commune in Athens, the first seeds of irreconcilable difference between them are sown. Eik is able to slip in and out of drug use, but Iben has less control, forcing her to make a break in order to save herself. Eik spends the remainder of his life trying to lure her back, forming Steppeulvene and declaring his love for her in one of the band's biggest hits.

Fjelstrup and Soderberg are both immensely likeable, but Madsen spends too little time foreshadowing the soulful turn the film gradually takes. The audience needs to yearn, as much as Eik does, for these two to get over their on-again, off-again difficulties and embrace each other's imperfections.

But amid all the goofy, almost farcical craziness of the early action, and the earthbound and cosmic exploration of their time on the road, the dramatic stakes are never very persuasively drawn. The script drowns the action in voiceover from Eik's writings rather than coaxing him, or anyone in his orbit, to emerge as a fully rounded character.

There's a generic feel to the film's depiction of countercultural politics and soul-searching; these seem less a part of any real rebel fire within than attitudes the characters slip on along with their period costumes. Better filmmakers have tried and failed to capture the spirit of that era, such as Ang Lee in Taking Woodstock, but it's tricky to depict such heady times without falling back on stereotypes.

Production companies: Nimbus Film, in association with MP Film Production, Bleck Film & TV

Cast: Joachim Fjelstrup, Marie Tourell Soderberg, Christian Gade Bjerrum, Johannes Nymark, Jakob Randrup, Ola Rapace, Anette Stovelbaek, Julia Ragnarsson, Thure Lindhardt

Director: Ole Christian Madsen

Screenwriters: Bo Hr. Hansen, Ole Christian Madsen

Producer: Lars Bredo Rahbek

Executive producers: Bo Ehrhardt, Birgitte Hald

Director of photography: Jorgen Johansson

Production designer: Soren Schwarzberg

Costume designer: Manon Rasmussen

Music: Henrik Lindstrand

Editor: Soren B. Ebbe

Sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 107 minutes.