H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) is a memorable tale of horror and misguided human aspiration to create a perfect race or, at the very least, an improved kind of human-animal. Moreau, a medical doctor forced to leave England because of questionable experimentation, lives on a remote Pacific island where he continues his morally dubious experiments trying to turn animals into humans — The Beast Folk — or turning humans into animals when they interfere with Moreau’s “research.” Whether or not such a thing is actually biologically possible, even with the introduction of human DNA into the animal surgeries as portrayed by the 1996 film version, the novel was published at a time when the discussion around the morality of vivisection (experimenting on living creatures) was becoming more vocal and public.
The Island of Dr. Moreau explores not only vivisection and Darwinian evolutionary theory but imperialism at its most rudimentary level. Though Moreau, an educated, white Englishman, is not colonizing the island or exploiting its natural products to enrich himself or his countrymen, he clearly considers himself superior to most other humans and certainly to any animal. His attempts to make the island population of beasts into “improved” human-like animals backfires, however, because he fails to take each species’ own inherent natures into consideration. For example, Moreau teaches his Beast Folk that it is bad to go on “all fours” and to hunt, kill, or eat anything else that goes on four legs, thoroughly ignoring the Beast Folk’s primary drives to survive. Though Wells himself called the novel “an exercise in youthful blasphemy,” it is a powerful exploration of human attempts to interfere with nature, cruelty to non-human species, and moral responsibility, especially in the matter of genetically “improving” a native culture or species.
In the dark Danish comedy, Men & Chicken (Mænd og Høns, 2015), written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, viewers are taken to the island of Dr. Moreau’s geneticist counterpart long after he has successfully completed several experimental atrocities. Beginning and ending with narration reminiscent of a fairy tale, the film depicts five brothers’ unsettling discovery that they have the “most twisted family tree since Hamlet” (Variety). Though its premise is sinister and “suggests a cult horror movie,” Men & Chicken is, instead, a “staggering account of family dysfunction, secret-hoarding, and tragedy.”
The film has a “dry eccentricity that is entertaining and absurd,” with terrific ensemble acting. Though at least one critic found the film “creepy, weird, and condescending,” resembling The Island of Dr. Moreau “via Kierkegaard,” the film’s broader comedy eventually settles down into an intense investigation of the meaning of life, the purpose of civilization, and an exploration of what it means to be human. Men & Chicken begins as almost atrocious slapstick but ultimately becomes a poignant exploration of the meaning of life, family, community, and love.
The film begins on simultaneously tragic and comedic notes. Gabriel (David Dencik, above R) sits at his dying father’s side in the hospital, waiting for his brother. By the time brother Elias (Mads Mikkelsen, above L), arrives, talking more about his blind-date with a psychologist he met online than their dying father, the old man has passed on, leaving his two sons a videotape that reveals he is not their biological father.
As if that weren’t distressing enough, Dad tells them that they did not even have the same mother. Elias, a sensitive thought slightly dim-witted compulsive masturbator, is more concerned about being abandoned by his little brother Gabriel than he is about learning that Dad was not their biological father. Gabriel, a professor and author with an uncontrollable gag reflex who has just been abandoned by his latest girlfriend because he cannot have children, wants to go meet their biological father, who is said to be alive and working at a sanatorium on the island of Ork.
On the trip, we learn more about their personalities, including Elias’ short temper and hatred of being interrupted, and Gabriel’s loneliness for a wife, along with his seemingly infinite patience. When the two brothers arrive at the appropriately creepy sanatorium where their father supposedly lives and works, they meet three other men, all of whom have harelips,* as do Gabriel and Elias. In no time, the three other brothers prove that they are siblings in personality traits as well as biological heritage.
Franz (Søren Malling), who carries around his taxidermy animals, has the same type of temper as Elias. The only brother with pronounced facial scarring beyond the harelip, Franz is also the only other brother with enough education to be a teacher, as is Gabriel.
Despite having no formal education, Josef (Nicolas Bro, above R) is as intellectual and philosophical as Gabriel, but rather shy, more like Elias.
And Josef (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, above L) is as affectionate and desperate to have sex with women as Elias, but as brave and independent as Gabriel.
Because Gabriel is injured in the initial meeting with the three siblings at the sanatorium, he and Elias are invited to stay, at least until Gabriel recovers. Though the two brothers cannot see their father, ostensibly because he is ill, the two quickly become interested in staying on.
Elias becomes emotionally attached to the three siblings, playing badminton in tennis whites, and hunkering down in beds pushed close together so the brothers can listen to bedtime stories.
Meanwhile, Gabriel becomes obsessed with discovering why all the brothers look so much alike, despite their having different mothers, and why there are so many animals living in the sanatorium with the younger three brothers who were raised by the biological father. Gabriel is determined to meet their father, Dr. Thanatos, and to learn about his genetic research, despite Franz’s warning that Gabriel will end up “in the cage” for misbehavior or other infractions of the rules.
When the brothers finally do learn about their biological heritage, along with their father’s mysterious and terrifyingly illegal behavior, their fragile emotional connection to each other is strained to the breaking point, causing the island’s fellow residents to get actively involved in the brothers’ personal drama.
Absurd, darkly comedic, and ultimately surprising, Men & Chicken is a poignant exploration of what it means to be human, to be in a family, and to truly love others. Though the ending might be considered happily-ever-after by some viewers, the conclusion of the film has very tragic undertones. After all, what goes on in the basement is the dark lining that makes this film a drama rather than a comedy of grotesque errors.
In Danish with English subtitles, Men & Chicken was one of three films shortlisted for Denmark’s entry to the 88th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Films: its ensemble acting is outstanding, as is its satire and irony.
* The harelips caused some viewers to remark that Jensen was mocking people with disabilities or different appearances.