Review: The Saint Bernard Syndicate
by Vladan Petkovic
- Mads Brügger's first fiction feature retains his penchant for social provocation, plus his mix of humour and embarrassment, in a culture-clash comedy
Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger has given us some of the most controversial documentaries of the past decade, Red Chapel and Ambassador, in which he tackled the abuse of human rights in North Korea and Central Africa through unorthodox methods that included impersonation and hidden cameras. He is now back with his first fiction film, The Saint Bernard Syndicate [+see also:
film profile], which has just world-premiered at Tribeca and picked up Best Screenplay for Lærke Sanderhoff and Best Actor for Rasmus Bruun (see the news). The film unmistakably retains Brügger's trademark provocative ingredient: irreverent, often non-PC humour stemming from embarrassing situations.
Two incompetent Danish men from old-money families try to start a business in China breeding St Bernard dogs, apparently a big hit among the growing upper class. However, even from the very beginning, we question how the arrogant but probably completely clueless Frederik (Frederik Cilius) can be sure about this information as he is trying to find a partner for his business. At their elite boarding-school reunion, he spots Rasmus (Bruun), an awkward, white-haired furniture salesman whom he used to bully, and he manages to convince him to invest in the risky endeavour.
Frederik's wealthy father hears his son out but slams his request for a loan, saying he has no knack for business. Yet again humiliated by his dad, but undeterred, Frederik steals his father's St Bernard, named Dollar, and takes him to China together with Rasmus. Meanwhile, his partner has learned that he suffers from the incurable amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ("What Stephen Hawking has," the doctor explains), which will push him to make the most out of his China trip.
As the duo arrives in Chongqing, probably the world's most densely populated city and one of China's top business hubs, they struggle with their own ignorance and incompetence every step of the way, from the cringe-inducing interviews with potential local employees, where they manage to cross the line of decency for any culture, to their blunders with potential investors, including an extremely rich baker who has built his own castle and a fishy businessman who could easily be connected to organised crime.
The Saint Bernard Syndicate is a film of cheap and fast-paced aesthetics and luxurious content, hinging on culture clash and personal failure, resulting in plenty of uncomfortable laughs. The two anti-heroes (both actors are successful comedians in Denmark) are socially awkward without seeming to care about it, and inept at almost anything they try, with Frederik's arrogance and sense of self-entitlement creating a strangely satisfying contrast with Rasmus' shaky self-esteem and erratic bursts of confidence.
A lot of the narrative that unfolds in China, with non-professional local actors, is improvised, and this adds another jarring dimension to the relation between the Danes' self-perceived colonial-minded superiority, and the locals' monolithic customs. No one here understands the other side, and no one even tries to, each firmly stuck in their own intolerant perception of the world and their blindly self-entitled place in it. In this sense, The Saint Bernard Syndicate is a prime slice of Brügger.
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