Itsi Bitsi

Toronto Film Festival
Ole Christian Madsen introduces the spirit of Denmark's emerging hippie movement in a story about beat poet Eik Skaløe.

Based on actual events, the story begins in 1962, when Eik Skaløe meets the young peace activist Iben and falls head over heels in love. As Iben refuses to commit herself to one man only, Eik desperately tries to win her over. Unfolding over the next years in Denmark, France, Spain, North Africa, Greece and Iraq, the film follows the young poet, writer and singer as he finally recognizes his defeat and in 1968 travels to the land of dreams, Nepal – a journey from which he would never return.

Ole Christian Madsen introduces two young actors, Joachim Fjelstrup and Marie Tourell Søderberg, as Eik and Iben in his tragic love story of the ’60s. Itsi Bitsi is Madsen’s fifth feature to screen at Toronto Film Festival and is selected for the Contemporary World Cinema programme. The film is produced by Lars Bredo Rahbek for Nimbus Film.

Photos: Per Arnesen and Nikola Predović

“Despite the fact that this is Madsen’s most restless movie to date, with its characters bouncing all over Europe and Asia, Itsi Bitsi shares numerous qualities with its predecessors.

The source of tension in Madsen’s movies is almost always loss, usually involving the collapse of a world the protagonist previously saw as permanent, intractable. When things implode, the protagonist is inevitably caught unawares, and left to deal with a world where he or she can see the same reference points, but they no longer point in the same direction as before.”

Steve Gravestock


A Place to Fall Apart

Itsi Bitsi is a portrait of a generation and a wickedly amusing glimpse of Danish rock history. But above all, it’s a love story, says Toronto’s longtime film programmer Steve Gravestock, who has followed Ole Christian Madsen from the very beginning. Despite their dizzying array of subjects, Madsen’s movies are all linked, he says.

By Steve Gravestock

There are directors who find their subject and their way of addressing it immediately and stick to it through thick and thin, seldom varying even when they run the risk of self-parody.

Then there are filmmakers, far rarer and far more interesting at least from my perspective, who explore what interests them and devise an approach to the subject which fits it and reflects the milieu. Intriguingly, while these filmmakers create a body of work which shows a far wider range of seemingly conflicting interests, they paradoxically sketch a far more coherent world view, because what eventually links the films is not stylistic tics or generic crutches, but the directors’ sensibilities, reflected in how they view an issue or milieu and locate the conflicts and tensions within it.

Veteran Danish filmmaker Ole Christian Madsen belongs in the latter, far more rewarding group. His feature film output has run the gamut ranging from near magic-realist romantic comedies (his Oscar-shortlisted Superclásico) to war movies (one of Denmark’s biggest domestic hits, Flame & Citron); from haunting portraits of fading, troubled relationships (Prague and Kira’s Reason – A Love Story) to grimy explorations of the underworld (his first feature Pizza King and his third Angels in Fast Motion).

It’s a hallmark of Madsen’s approach that his narratives don’t move forward, but laterally or even backwards.Steve Gravestock

Madsen’s latest Itsi Bitsi, based on the real life story of the founder of Steppeulvene, one of the most revered Danish rock bands of the 1960s, addresses the continent-spanning romance of Eik, a frustrated activist-turned-novelist-turned-rock star, and Iben, the enigmatic love of his life.

The film introduces its two principals at a protest against nuclear armament. Iben is in a relationship with a hard-core activist, but is immediately taken with Eik’s iconoclasm and his poetic, less rhetorical approach to issues. The arrival of drugs and records (most notably Bob Dylan’s early stuff) only accelerates their departure from the political movement, and soon enough the pair is tooling through Southern Europe heading God knows where. En route, Iben drops in and out of the relationship, sometimes inviting new people to be a part of it, sometimes disappearing for months on end.

Throughout, Eik remains committed, though his rambling, florid writings never seem to be progressing despite months of drug-fuelled hard work in the most exotic places. When Iben disappears in the north of Denmark, Eik decides the only way to win her back is to become famous. In one of the film’s finest set pieces, he feeds an already prominent folk musician, who oozes earnestness, a copious amount of drugs in order to convince him to combine forces.

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Despite the fact that this is Madsen’s most restless movie to date, with its characters bouncing all over Europe and Asia, Itsi Bitsi shares numerous qualities with its predecessors. The source of tension in Madsen’s movies is almost always loss, usually involving the collapse of a world the protagonist previously saw as permanent, intractable. When things implode, the protagonist is inevitably caught unawares and left to deal with a world where he or she can see the same reference points, but they no longer point in the same direction as before.

More often than not, the collapse is something that’s been long gestating, and the hero has simply been too complacent or rigid to realize it. In Prague, for instance, alienated Christoffer travels to the Czech Republic to claim his estranged father’s remains where he finds out that his father was gay (the reason he left the family) and that his marriage is effectively over. The most extreme and the sole comic instance in Madsen’s films comes in Superclásico, where wine salesman Christian realizes the repercussions of his wife’s departure months afterwards. At the most macrocosmic, the heroes of the resistance film Flame & Citron, who would have been outcasts in peacetime, must deal with a Denmark overrun by Nazis while struggling to function in a resistance movement whose objectives are conflicted or even in direct opposition to theirs. And, in Itsi Bitsi, Eik criss-crosses countries and continents – he hits virtually every small town in Denmark – in his haphazard, at times indirect attempts to win Iben back, all the while willfully ignoring her reluctance.

In Itsi Bitsi, a map of Eik’s directionless travels would read like a cartographer’s portrait of delirium.Steve Gravestock

It’s a hallmark of Madsen’s approach that his narratives don’t move forward, but laterally or even backwards, with the characters’ slow-burn comprehension equally or even more important than any action. Prague’s Christoffer finds out he knew his father even less than he thought he did, and the same could be said about his relationship with his wife. Superclásico’s Christian thinks he’s taking his life into his own hands, but in reality he’s vainly trying to turn back the clock. In Flame & Citron, the two fighters aren’t simply the doggedly individualistic rebels of myth – they’re constantly being jerked around: by the higher ups in the London-based resistance or by the woman Flame has fallen in love with. And finally, in Itsi Bitsi, a map of Eik’s directionless travels would read like a cartographer’s portrait of delirium.

Of course, these thematic concerns would be interesting but dry if Madsen and his collaborators weren’t capable of communicating the emotional investments his characters have in their increasingly doomed, imaginary status quos. I’ve been remiss about the importance of the actors in Madsen’s work. Every film boasts fine performances – frequently with the style shifting from one film to the next – including Mads Mikkelsen’s work in Prague and Flame & Citron, whose world-weary, rigid Christoffer seems lifetimes away from his damaged resistance fighter Citron, Thure Lindhardt’s borderline psychotic Flame, and particularly Stine Stengade in Prague and the femme fatale in Flame & Citron. The two newcomers in Itsi Bitsi, Joachim Fjelstrup and Marie Tourell Søderberg, both deliver memorable turns, while veteran performers Ola Rapace (I Am Yours and Beyond) and Thure Lindhardt offer up key supporting roles.

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I doubt there’s anything quite as plaintive in recent cinema as Thure Lindhardt’s Flame and his belief that he might be able to lead a normal life with the femme fatale who may have sold him and Citron out more than once, or Anders W. Berthelsen’s wine salesman Christian and his buffoonish attempt to beat his ex’s new superstar boyfriend at football, or Mads Mikkelsen’s Christoffer and his solitary walk through the streets of Prague, dragging his suitcase over the cobblestones, headed nowhere we can imagine, in that film’s conclusion – well along with the bookending images in Isti Bitsi, with Joachim Fjelstrup’s Eik charging wild-eyed, in no apparent direction, through the deserts of Afghanistan.

Eik adores chaos, as long as he has an anchor, and when he loses that, chaos is far less appealing.Steve Gravestock

Indeed, much of Itsi Bitsi is about the adrenalin generated by collapse. Things fall apart, characters become junkies and lose their way, but, really until the last section of the film, Eik is practically gleeful, optimistic, willing to duke it out with an army of suitors and gurus who want to haul Iben away from him. It’s only in the latter stages when reality sinks in that he begins to doubt himself. In his own way, he’s as rigid as his predecessors in Prague, Flame & Citron and Superclásico, the only difference being that the others feared or ignored change; here Eik adores chaos as long as he has an anchor, and when he loses that, chaos is far less appealing.

A meditation on a characteristic theme of loss and realization, Itsi Bitsi is one of the most unique entries in Madsen’s work. The film is, at different times, a portrait of a generation, a wickedly amusing glimpse of Danish rock history and, most of all, a compelling romance.

Itsi Bitsi, world premiering in the Contemporary World Cinema programme at Toronto Film Festival, is produced by Lars Bredo Rahbek for Nimbus Film.

Steve Gravestock is a senior programmer at Toronto International Film Festival.

Itsi Bitsi in Danish Film Catalogue

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Ole Christian Madsen

Director Ole Christian Madsen, born 1966, graduated in direction from the National Film School of Denmark in 1993, the same year as Thomas Vinterberg and Per Fly.

Madsen enjoyed success with his short fiction Sinan’s Wedding (1997) and debuted as feature director with Pizza King (1999). Madsen contributed to Dogme 95 with Kira’s Reason – A Love Story (2001), followed by Angels in Fast Motion (2005), Prague (2006), the historical drama Flame & Citron (2008) and the Oscar-shortlisted comedy Superclásico (2011).

Madsen is an acclaimed director for the small screen, including the series Taxi (1997) and Unit 1 (2000) as well as the six-part post-war noir The Spider (2000). He has also directed several episodes of the US action-drama series Banshee (2013-).

Itsi Bitsi is world premiering at Toronto Film Festival.

Photo: Robin Skjoldborg

Feature Films / At a Glance

Superclásico (2011)

Madsen’s first stab at the comedy genre is set in Buenos Aires, a fitting arena for a love triangle involving football, tango and wine. The film follows the frustrated wine salesman Christian (Anders W. Berthelsen) who travels halfway around the world to reconcile with his wife Anna (Paprika Steen) who has fallen for a hot Argentinian football player. Oscar-shortlisted for Best Foreign Language film. Screened at Toronto.

See more in the Danish Film Database

Flame & Citron (2008)

Madsen’s story about a duo of legendary WWII resistance fighters, played by Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelsen, was a huge box office draw. The film follows the two outsiders, nicknamed Flame (for his red hair) and Citron (who worked at a Citröen car repair shop), charged with liquidating Danish informers. But when Flame is asked to execute his girlfriend Ketty, an enigmatic courier played by Stine Stengade, he starts questioning his orders. Screened at Toronto.

See more in the Danish Film Database

Prague (2006)

Mads Mikkelsen and Stine Stengade join forces as the couple Christoffer and Maja who go to Prague to bring back the remains of Christoffer’s deceased father. Christoffer harbors deep resentment toward his dad who left him and his family years ago. While he is slowly learning more about his father’s life, Maja breaks the news that she has fallen for someone else. Finally, Christoffer’s emotions come to a head as he realizes that his family is no longer. Screened at Toronto.

See more in the Danish Film Database

Angels in Fast Motion (2005)

Set in a world dominated by hard drugs and desperate addicts, Madsen’s adaptation of Jakob Ejersbo’s novel tells the tale of three lost souls: the dealer Maria, the former addict Allan and the prophetic cynic Steso. All are  struggling for survival and trying to make sense of the madness.

See more in the Danish Film Database

Kira’s Reason  A Love Story (2001)

Madsen’s contribution to Dogme 95 stars Stine Stengade as Kira who, after two years in a psychiatric ward, struggles to deal with life in the real world. The lavish surprise “welcome home” party that her husband has planned for her does little to ease her fears. Kira’s sole desire is to return to normality, but is forced to realize that she cannot be the wife and mother she used to be. Screened at Toronto.

See more in the Danish Film Database

Pizza King (1999)

Madsen’s first feature film is set among a group of young second-generation immigrants who get mixed up with Copenhagen’s crime scene. Young Junes is tired of selling hot goods to fences, and he feels he is being pushed into his best friend Bobby’s dangerous plans. As a conflict of loyalties arises, Junes meets the law student Fatima who inspires him to re-examine his life of petty crime.

See more in the Danish Film Database

Steppeulvene

Steppeulvene was a Danish rock band which despite its short-lived existence has become the icon for Denmark’s hippie music scene of the ’60s. The group was the result of a collaboration between lead singer Eik Skaløe, Denmark’s first real beat poet, and Stig Møller (guitar, vocal), who wrote the psychedelic, folk-inspired music. The other members were Søren Seirup (bass) and Preben Devantier (drums).

“Itsi Bitsi” was Skaløe’s nickname for Iben as well as the title of a legendary song on the group’s trailblazing record from 1967, Hip.

The group’s name was taken from the 1927 novel Der Steppenwolf by the German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse. Also in the late ’60s, the North American band Steppenwolf named itself after the novel, equally inspired by its anti-authoritarianism and commitment to the discovery of the self.

Itsi Bitsi in Danish Film Catalogue

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