“You know, it gets more and more humiliating every time I survive,” Wilbur says, reprimanding his brother Harbour for busting in and saving him after yet another pill-guzzling, gas-swallowing attempt to take his own life. “But you phoned,” Harbour replies.
Like Theo van Gogh looking after his tormented brother Vincent, Harbour (Adrian Rawlins) harbors an undying love and compassion for his brother Wilbur. But Wilbur (Jamie Sives) yearns to die, or at least it looks that way. Enter Shirley Henderson as Alice — a lonely single mother who peddles books she picks up from the hospital to sell at Wilbur and Harbour’s secondhand bookstore. Harbour thinks Alice might be just the girl to give Wilbur a reason to live, but Harbour’s own desires get in the way.
Wilbur immediately jumps off into biting black humor a la Harold and Maude, as when Wilbur tries to drown himself in a lake that only goes up to his knees. A cloud of gloom follows the beautifully composed shots around and through doorways and cupboards, as if the camera were a personification of Wilbur’s impeded will to live.
Set in Glasgow (expect to peel your way through some heavy Scottish brogue), this is Danish director Lone Scherfig’s first feature film made in English. Her last feature — Italian for Beginners — was an official film of Dogme 95, a collective of directors founded in Copenhagen in 1995 (aka those notorious celluloid rebels battling the superficial, technologically driven films of today). With Italian, Scherfig adhered to the collective’s strict rules, shooting on location with natural lighting and props, etc. In Wilbur, she’s evolving, allowing incidental music and her personal directing aesthetic to guide the film’s course. But she holds to Dogme 95’s goal of pulling truth out of characters and settings.
From stuffed lemmings to a toy penguin on a wedding cake to a bookstore customer mistaking Wilbur for Alice’s husband, Scherfig makes foreshadowing a prominent part of the film’s structure. It’s undeniably well-thought-out, but there’s a repercussion to having all these preordained clues funnel the plot into the expected direction: There are few surprises. And the dark humor that balanced the cheerless atmosphere at the beginning of the film is forgotten somewhere along the hapless suicidal way.
Even though passions may be muted, the subtle strength of Scherfig’s direction and the characters’ self-discoveries are potent enough to make Wilbur’s attempts at death — and life — stick to your gut.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.