by Jan Lumholdt
- Frelle Petersen has crafted a very human slice of rural life in a small and cosy corner of southernmost Denmark
The hardships of a life of farming were recently portrayed rather grimly in Jens Assur’s Ravens [+see also:
interview: Jens Assur
film profile], a story about rural Sweden in the 1970s. The two protagonists, the suicidal father Agne, quite literally stuck in his barren field, and his bird-loving son Klas, next in line for this Sisyphean task, were given few moments of bliss. Dreams were crushed, hopes were lost, struggles went on – as they had for centuries.
Upon encountering Uncle [+see also:
film profile], the worthy Grand Prix recipient at the recent 2019 Tokyo International Film Festival, one is sometimes tempted to presume that writer-director Frelle Petersen has not only glanced at Ravens, but also decided to directly address it. Backwoods Sweden has now turned into backwoods Denmark (right next to the German border, where Petersen himself grew up), young Klas is now twentysomething Kristine, and father Agne is now this film’s unnamed titular uncle. Kris’s parents are no longer around; it is implied that her mother succumbed to a malignant disease and her father then took his own life. Little is said throughout – about anything, really.
It actually takes about ten minutes before the first line is delivered. We get to see the crusty old farmer (Peter H Tygesen, the actual farmer at the actual farm location) being rolled out by his niece (Jette Søndergaard, Tygesen’s real-life niece). We see them at breakfast, heading for the stables (the uncle with his walking frame), and milking and grazing the cows. After lunch, there’s equipment maintenance, a nap (for the uncle), more cattle feeding (for the niece), then off to the supermarket for some victuals. It is here that a voice – the uncle’s – is finally heard. “Nutella,” it proclaims.
By now, it has become sufficiently clear that Uncle has a far lighter and also sweeter tone than Ravens. In their little corner of the world where the TV reports on EU migration, climate meetings, North Korean missiles and other non-concerns, Kris and her uncle have an adequately complete existence. After dinner, they indulge in a game of Scrabble and a sitcom, then go to bed, until next morning. Stuck they may be, but in a familiar, safe and – why not – cosy routine, one that they both equally depend on.
This routine is ever so slightly jolted when a calf gets diphtheria, which Kris identifies quite expertly; she was accepted into vet school after graduation, when her family situation likely changed everything. Through the encouragement of Johannes, the local vet (played by actual vet Ole Caspersen), she starts to get her chops back. Would she consider resuming her educational path? Kris remains staunchly loyal to her uncle, or is it just a knee-jerk reaction?
Another catalyst triggers change for our scrupulous duo when Mike, the son of a neighbouring farmer, shyly approaches Kris about having a bite at the local tavern. She accepts and shows up for the date… with her uncle and his walking frame in tow. A priceless restaurant scene follows, depicting life at an awkward moment – one that may possibly be laughed at in the years to come, in the right circumstances.
Dreams, hopes, struggles – all are ongoing and are part of parcel of Uncle (the film and the character). Moments of bliss, however, abound in this beautifully lensed (by Petersen himself) and quite exquisite slice of humanity. The makers of Nutella, too, should be pleased.
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