Judging by the name alone, you might guess that The Danish Poet is a fairy tale, or maybe a philosophical thought experiment, like the Chinese room or the Ship of Theseus. In truth, it’s sort of both, and sort of neither. Like a fairy tale, it makes its point through simple storytelling and some exaggerated, almost-magical elements. And like a thought experiment, it puts a friendly face to a thorny problem, in this case the role of fate versus random chance in determining how we become who we become.
Initially, Kove was inspired to write the real story of her origins: how her father met her mother at architecture school, after making an appointment with an art teacher to find out if he could succeed in the art world. If the decision had gone the other way, the parents wouldn’t have met and Kove would never have been born. It might just as easily have been inspired by Kove’s own career, where her decision to spend her time at the NFB’s viewing centre in Montreal inspired her to give up on an Urban Planning degree to take a Master’s in animation.
Instead of either of those stories, Kove opts to move away from autobiography, inventing a fictional narrator whose own origins involve a series of decisions, accidental and intentional, made by a poet with writer’s block, a farmer’s daughter in an unhappy engagement, a clumsy mail carrier, and other equally charming characters. As unlikely as the chain of events may seem, the point seems to be that it’s no more or less improbable than the endless thread of happenstance that underlies every life.
Like the rest of Kove’s catalogue, The Danish Poet is gentle and inviting, tackling its hefty topic from an askew angle that allows for plenty of digressions. Drawn with Kove’s typically clean lines, in a style somewhere between Hergé’s ligne claire and the cartoonishness of ’80s NFB offerings, it’s as approachable a film as you could hope for while still wrestling with existential qualities.
PS – For a sci-fi story that deals with some similar themes from a very different perspective, you can’t go wrong with Ted Chiang’s “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” from the Arrival author’s excellent short story collection, Exhalation. The stories are really nothing alike, except in that they both ask you think about the spectacularly small odds of your own existence.
The Danish Poet
dir: Torill Kove
syn: Is it possible to trace the chain of events that led to our own birth? Is our existence just coincidence? Do little things matter?
In The Danish Poet the narrator ponders these question as we embark on a holiday to Norway with Kaspar, a poet whose creative well has run dry.
Bonus: Watch Kove’s acceptance speech for The Danish Poet’s 2007 Oscar win. We’ll avoid commenting on the Academy’s choice to have children introduce the Animated Short category and what that says about their respect for the medium.