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Toronto 2011: Betsy Sharkey on 'A Funny Man'

September 9, 2011 |  8:15 am

A couple of years ago in Toronto I caught Danish director Martin Zandvliet’s first film, “Applause,” a gritty examination of an actress struggling with fame, family and alcoholism that featured a remarkably raw performance by Danish great Paprika Steen. As a director, Zandvliet's style was to bring us in so close to the pathos there is no escape; in conversation he was as introspective as anything he put on screen.

Zandvliet is back this year with what seems to be Chapter Two, once again examining the murky emotional life of those in entertainment’s heart of darkness with “A Funny Man.” As it was with “Applause,” the film's strength is in the performances –- this time it’s Nikolai Lie Kaas as the famous Danish comedian Dirch Passer, sort of their Jerry Lewis, a genius at playing the dunce. The film catches him at the top of his game in the '50s and '60s, wracked by doubt and wanting to be something more than the clown. Somewhere between noir and portraiture in its look, there are moments so exquisitely shot that they look ready for framing (though sometimes we are left with them for too long).

The film is also a love story -– not so much of the women who moved through Passer's life as his indelible relationship with his comic partner of many years, Kjeld Petersen. Lars Kanthe is wonderful in the role as he carries the repressed resentment of the overshadowed. But as it was in real life, the film belongs to Passer -- the clown unmasked in Kaas' hands.

Zandvliet's skill, it seems, is helping his actors disappear completely inside their characters. In "A Funny Man," whether he’s capturing Passer and Petersen backstage, egos struggling for balance, or onstage, doing their vaudeville bits, what the filmmaker does best is expose their humanity.


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-- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times film critic, in Toronto

Photo: A scene from "A Funny Man." Courtesty Toronto Film Festival

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