While no doubt dripping in intrigue, Copenhagen Does Not Exist (2023) attempts to spin a retelling of the story of a missing mysterious girl, but results in a finished product that is best described as an unintentional fulfilment of Mulvey’s theory.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating consequences of the rise of cinema as an art form has been the popularisation of inaccurate conceptions of what Laura Mulvey theorises as the “male gaze”. Since 1975, this theory has been plagued by misinterpretations and failed subversions. It is here in this film that these issues come to light. While no doubt dripping in intrigue, Copenhagen Does Not Exist (2023) attempts to spin a retelling of the story of a missing mysterious girl, but results in a finished product that is best described as an unintentional fulfilment of Mulvey’s theory.
Part of this year’s Scandinavian Film Festival, Copenhagen Does Not Exist is a psychological thriller directed by Martin Skovbjerg. It follows Sander (Jonas Holst Schmidt) after the disappearance of his girlfriend Ida (Angela Bundalovic), as he volunteers to be isolated in an apartment and questioned by Ida’s father Porath and brother Viktor. From there, we learn about the unconventional nature of Ida and Sander’s relationship, in which the two became isolated from each other and the world.
Written by Eskil Vogt, the same screenwriter as The Worst Person in the World (2021), I had high hopes as I headed into the film about what was advertised: to reflect on the nature of romantic relationships. But what was experienced was instead a film ripe for critique a la Mulvey—I longed to see Ida as more than a mere object to Sander’s subject.
There is little doubt about the film’s craft. There are exquisite choices made stylistically: from an opening montage of Ida through Sander’s eyes to the omniscient presence of an observing “other”. This is clear when we first meet Sander. He is filmed through doorways, the camera panning to him, in the midst of mundane actions like waking up to walking towards the window.
Another wonderful choice was during a scene depicting Sander’s “interrogation”. He is filmed by Ida’s brother through a camcorder, the video reflected onto a television. The television is facing towards the audience, but Sander is turned away. It is a fascinating choice to be almost a voyeur into Sander’s brain, to understand what has come to pass. But the power of all these stylistic choices is undermined when one comes, or rather fails to come, to understand Ida.
Ida is difficult to understand, as she doesn’t appear as a character, but rather a figure, a mirage of a real person. Whatever the film’s intent, Ida is a pure object of Sander’s own projection. She is only seen through his eyes, and this is how we meet her in the film’s opening montage, which features Sander watching her watch a movie, buy a book, and in a grocery store with her skirt hiked up.
I hesitate to use this phrase, as I wonder if it has lost all meaning, but Ida appears to be a modified take on the manic pixie dream girl trope, if the dream girl’s appeal were not only her quirky pastimes. but also her meekness and disability. Ida’s mania and mental illness seem to only add to her appeal for Sander: her implied eating disorder makes her enjoyably shy and her body is emphasised in ways that offer no agency on her end. In one scene, Sander cuts Ida’s hair without pushback. She just sits in the bath as he does so.
“I just watched her,” Sander says when interrogated by her father. When asked if he noticed her fading away, Sander replies, “Ida didn’t like to be monitored”. And yet she is monitored in both the film and her relationship. The relationship itself began with this active watching on Sander’s part, something which he admits to too: “She couldn’t see me, but I could see her”. It is the male gaze in action, in both the theoretical and in the film’s misappropriated sense of the term.
Copenhagen Does Not Exist does not come across as a love story or complex character study. I simply left it sick. All I wanted was to see Ida for herself, to be more than a meek creature for Sander to look onto. Instead, this film offers three men trying to understand who this woman is, with no agency provided to her by the filmmakers, not even a proper stare back. Her tragedies, including a pregnancy, starvation and depression, don’t just rob Ida of any actual complexity, but, in turn, simplify this story and waste its potential. I longed to see what Ida thought of her life. The twist ending, despite whatever aims the filmmakers may have had, just fails to have an impact, reinforcing a lot of the fears I had about the film when it began. This film, about watching, fails to add anything new, and instead reinforces a lot of what has already been done and critiqued in the “dream girl” cinema of the early 2000s, with little self-awareness on its own part.
This review was produced in collaboration with the Film Society.