It might promise fame, fortune, glitz, glamour, stardom and champagne, but the film industry isn’t what it seems. That’s a lesson Veni Vidi Vici’s Karsten Daugaard (Thomas Bo Larsen) learns all too well when the Swedish drama series gets started, with the Danish filmmaker premiering his latest feature and suffering the difficult consequences.
He needs the film, also called Veni Vidi Vici, to succeed financially; however a critical mauling dashes his hopes — and, it seems, his filmmaking future. Then his old film school pal Vincent Fontana (played by the show’s creator, writer, director and producer Rafael Edholm) offers him an alternative. Rather than adhere to his wife Jonna’s (Livia Millhagen) sensible advice, give up on his dreams and start working at her father’s abattoir, he can take a directing job with Vinnie. He’ll still be making movies, but rather than the highbrow fare he’s known for, he’ll lend his talents to the porn industry.
Since the birth of cinema as a medium, filmmakers have been as obsessed with depicting their chosen art form as they have with working in it, a rich history that Veni Vidi Vici taps into. Given the gap between its glossy perception and the hard-fought reality, the compulsion to delve into their own industry is understandable — gritty struggles are a movie staple, and exposing the harsh truths lurking behind shiny facades a common film storyline. Charlie Chaplin pondered just that, comically, in his 1916 short Behind the Screen. Buster Keaton did the same in Sherlock Jr, and in the near-hundred years since, everyone from Federico Fellini, Billy Wilder and Robert Altman to Wes Craven, Spike Jonze and David Cronenberg have followed. If Veni Vidi Vici has a clear predecessor, though, it’s the tale of a high-school dropout turned ‘70s porn superstar. Indeed, if Paul Thomas Anderson had set his breakout second feature in Sweden, rather than the US, this would’ve been the end result.
Boogie Nights at SBS On Demand:
Topper Harvey — as Karsten decides to call himself as part of his new career — mightn’t tread in every one of Dirk Diggler, Jack Horner, Amber Waves and Buck Swope’s footsteps, but Veni Vidi Vici not only steps into their world, but also captures the spirit of Boogie Nights. And, the series does so in an empathetic yet tongue-in-cheek manner that lays bare the heart and soul behind all accounts of the outrageous side of movie-making: the desire to do what one loves, and the eagerness to do whatever it takes to do so. The series’ title, as taken from the phrase famously attributed to Julius Caesar, translates to “I came; I saw; I conquered,” after all.
Obvious innuendo aside, it’s a fitting statement. It’s the exclamation of success everyone following their heart hopes to utter, even if just in their head. It’s a mantra that can spur someone on when they’re desperate to succeed, like Dirk Diggler’s (Mark Wahlberg) iconic “I’m a star. I’m a star, I’m a star, I’m a star. I’m a big, bright shining star.” And, like that self-pep-talk, it’s also all-too-indicative of the chasm between hopes and reality that both Veni Vidi Vici and Boogie Nights mine. Their protagonists aren’t living their fantasy lives, but they’re willing to convince themselves otherwise.
Indeed, central to both Veni Vidi Vici and Boogie Nights is the dissection of what it means to dream — and to try, fail and make do instead. Both take their characters on a rollercoaster ride through a life they’d never before pondered, while demonstrating the toll it takes on their sense of self and their public identities. And, as men, it deconstructs their relationship to their own masculinity as they enter a realm where a person’s physical manhood is often literally on display. As we watch Dirk segue from reluctant to enthusiastic to jaded to desperate, we see him grapple with knowing who he is in a seductive world that tries to define him on its, not his, terms. Here, as we see Karsten tussle with the idea of making porn, determine that it’s his own choice to maintain the filmmaking life he wants, and weather the aftermath, we see him go through the same process as well.
And yet, there’s a difference between recognising that the porn industry isn’t always someone’s first option, the healthiest working environment, or conducive to an accurate perception of one’s own identity, and passing judgment upon it. Neither Boogie Nights nor Veni Vidi Vici celebrate or condemn porn, but rather use it as a microcosm to explore human nature in heightened circumstances. There’s a reason that, upon its release twenty years ago, Boogie Nights earned comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the work of Quentin Tarantino — a world of sex, like crime, can shine a spotlight on our deepest desires, urges, compulsions and behaviour, revealing truths relevant to everyday life, but never quite as apparent in everyday domestic and workplace situations.
Conveying the right look and feel is also paramount. Written, directed and produced by creator Rafael Edholm — co-scripting with Santiago Gil and Fredrik Lundberg — Veni Vidi Vici nods to the porn aesthetic where appropriate, and fashions telling contrasts between its appearance and the visuals of Nordic normality. It immerses viewers into the industry, while also reveling in the juxtaposition as Karsten jumps between a Boogie Nights-like arena and his ordinary existence. The series mightn’t dive in wholeheartedly like its period-set predecessor, or this year’s also ‘70s-set HBO series The Deuce, but it knows the value of not just telling, but showing. In offering an account of a man thrust into the porn realm at his worst moment, choosing to forge onwards and trying to use it to his advantage, it comes, sees and conquers in its own way.
Veni Vidi Vici streams at SBS On Demand from 11 January.