Thursday, April 22, 2010
Flame and Citron (2008)
Most people in the U.S. probably haven’t heard of the film Flame and Citron, but in its native Denmark it was a cultural phenomenon, as it backed up its sprawling story and record-breaking budget with an equally epic take at the Danish box office. It’s a moody, noir-ish tale about two reluctant heroes of the Danish Resistance (something else we’re not familiar with stateside) who went by the code names Flammen (Flame) and Citronen (Citron, or Lemon). Together with a small but dedicated group of underground freedom fighters, the duo became notorious for “liquidating” Nazi officers and the Danish traitors who collaborated with them. As Flame says at one point: “all we can do is shoot them one by one, until there are none left.” And indeed they do. The resulting film is an entrancing drama that plays like a lovingly crafted historical portrait with a dash of Leon: The Professional thrown in for good measure.
Getting the information, manpower, and materials to perform these assassinations often proves to be a Herculean effort, and makes up a good part of Flame and Citron’s storyline. Back room deals are made, documents are forged, equipment smuggled. We learn about it all through a narration provided by Flame (real name: Bent), a headstrong 23-year-old with a shock of red hair and a deadly serious demeanor. He’s the triggerman on the jobs, while Citron (Mads Mikkelsen, in the film’s best performance) is usually the driver. Citron, we’re told, has been in the resistance since its early days, and to look at him, with his perpetually greasy hair and weary pallor, you’d think he carries the weight of its success on his shoulders. He and Flame are the two stars of the resistance, and while their whole outfit is built to run like a Swiss watch, mistakes are often made: innocents are shot, trusted allies turn traitor, and Bent’s girlfriend, a femme fatale-ish secret agent, proves to be both his worst enemy and the only person he can trust.
This murky atmosphere, where bonds are tenuous and people must be taken at their word, provides Flame and Citron with many of its best moments. Among these is a conversation Bent has with an erudite German whom he is sent to kill, and who may or not be on his side. In a nice twist, the man goes on a rambling Socratic dialogue as a means of talking Bent out of pulling the trigger, and in the process touches on many of the film’s major themes. For these, director Ole Christian Madsen takes a page from Jean Pierre Melville’s legendary 1967 eulogy for La Resistance, Army of Shadows, in examining wartime morality and what is won and lost in the process of resorting to evil methods to combat evil. Likewise, the inner politics of the resistance movement are also highlighted, though perhaps with less subtlety: each meeting between the duo and their bosses in Sweden plays less like a historical document than it does like an action movie prerequisite, with Flame the loose cannon who would much rather reach for a Sten machine gun than a peace treaty any day.
Still, Flame and Citron is ultimately less about the inner workings of the Resistance than it is about the plight of its two main characters. Thankfully, Mikkelsen and Thure Lindhardt, as Flame, are up to the task of really carrying the dramatic heft. By this same token, the script manages to pile on just enough character development that when the action scenes do come—most notably a Scarface-esque last stand that has to be seen to be believed—they actually mean something. This is not to say that the film doesn’t occasionally veer into the kind of treacly territory native to both the historical drama and the action movie, but thanks to the strong performances, it does manage to largely stay grounded in the more honest, human drama. All flaws aside, Flame and Citron is well worth watching. It‘s more carefully crafted and thoughtful than most movies of this genre, and it provides a cutting look at an underground battlefront of WWII that most North Americans (myself included, I must admit) probably weren’t aware existed.