2017 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTVIAL: In the opening scene of Peter Schønau Fog’s “You Disappear“, a man (Frederik, played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas) recklessly joy rides his family car – with terrified wife and son inside – to a potentially deadly crash. Moments later, as the family exits the car to catch their breath, he falls off a ledge at the side of the road. When he’s taken to the hospital, the family gets unexpected news. A tumor has been found in his brain, explaining his erratic behavior. But there’s an even more troubling revelation to come in this challenging Danish drama.
While Frederik’s recovers from his subsequent surgery, a shocking secret emerges. He is accused of embezzling money from the school where he serves as headmaster. But in the lengthy court trial to come, a pivotal question must be answered. Did he do this of his own free will, or was he rendered temporarily insane by the tumor?
In answering this question, “You Disappear” switches drastically from the heightened emotions of the intro to a cerebral courtroom drama in every sense of the word. In fact, large portions of the film are dedicated to essentially a crash course in neuroscience. Whether through court testimonies or narration, we learn about the intricate way the brain works and how it affects our actions. Specifically, it is used in the arguments for and against Frederik’s insanity defense.
While the film teaches us perhaps more than we wanted to know about the brain, the other main aspect of the film is how Frederik’s behavior and diagnosis affect his wife. Played by Trine Dyrholm with her typically expressive acting skills, we witness Frederik’s changing personality through flashbacks to her memories of experiences with him before, during and after the tumor. But things get deeply muddled in parsing through this evidence. Mia and her son claim they were happiest during the time when he had the tumor, as he was more passionate and friendly. On the other hand, the tumor made him prone to bursts of rage and the kind of impulsive behavior that may have caused his criminal actions. Making things even more complex is the fact that Frederik had always been a deeply flawed man.
The film, therefore, brings up a uniquely interesting character study of a villain. But with the nonlinear narrative structure and digressions into the personal life of the defense lawyer Michael Nyqvist, the audience is left feeling disoriented at times and quite frankly, even bored. Furthermore, the focus on Mia’s perspective limits a more intimate understanding of Frederik’s psyche.
As a result, the film and its central court case trudge along to what becomes an increasingly obvious conclusion. “You Disappear” raises thought-provoking questions about free will and predetermined fate. But its heady approach neglects the soul of its most fascinating character. By reducing Frederick’s personality to brain signals and chemistry, “You Disappear” takes the complexity of neuroscience and somehow produces a disappointingly simplistic film.