Mads Mikkelsen – a trained dancer – has a graceful, unforced masculinity, a feline strut, that makes him a powerful presence on screen. So it’s a shock to see him in the opening scenes of Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s new film, Another Round.
He plays Martin, a high-school teacher who seems cowed by life – he is middle-aged, but walks with the weary shuffle of an old man. His students are bored by his teaching, his colleagues pity him and his sons don’t respect him. His relationship with his wife Anika (Maria Bonnevie) is terse and distant. Mikkelsen doesn’t stint in conveying a sense of a man filled with self-contempt.
One evening Martin attends a 40th birthday dinner for fellow teacher Nikolaj (Magnus Millang). They are joined by two other teachers, Peter (Lars Ranthe) and Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen). Nikolaj is a rather hapless father to three young children, Peter can’t sustain a relationship and Tommy is divorced. During dinner, Nikolaj introduces a theory, espoused by Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, that humans are born with an alcohol level 0.5 per cent too low for optimum emotional functioning. Martin, who intended to remain sober, impulsively skols a vodka. It’s the first active choice we have seen Martin make and, in that act, he seems to shed years.
The four friends decide to treat Skårderud’s theory as a scientific experiment by surreptitiously drinking through the day. They set clear rules and write up their observations.
Vinterberg first came to prominence as a co-founder, with Lars von Trier, of the Dogme 95 group of filmmakers. Their manifesto called for a radical stripping away of what they perceived as superfluous plastic elements of filmmaking, which they argued had made cinema a bloated and financially prohibitive art. There were to be no special effects, and all sound was to be diegetic. The conditions of the Dogme manifesto were austere and for filmmakers such as Vinterberg and von Trier, the temptation to experiment with more formal and aestheticised elements of cinema ultimately proved too strong. Vinterberg’s Festen, one of the finest of the Dogme films, was released in that brief flourishing.
Festen (or The Celebration in English) is an eviscerating assault on the Danish bourgeoisie, all taking place at the weekend birthday celebrations of an ageing patriarch who will be revealed as a sexual abuser of his children. The handheld camera, the naturalism of the filmmaking and performances, granted the film an almost documentary-like authenticity.
It’s almost impossible now for a younger audience to understand how truly provocative the film was almost a quarter-century ago. Long before incest had become a go-to plot device for lazy scriptwriters, the revelatory power of the film was thrilling. Although Another Round is a much more restrained film, both thematically and formally, and the prescriptions of Dogme have been long abandoned, there’s a sense of call and response between the two films: Vinterberg is once again trying to make sense of his Danish heritage and culture.
Certainly, there is none of the savagery in the writing that made Festen so disturbing. Even when the experiment of the friends takes a darker turn, none of their behaviour evinces the heinous violence of the characters in Festen.
The most damaged of the men isn’t Martin, but the older Tommy, who becomes an alcoholic. I don’t think it’s an accident that Tommy is played by the same actor who was the most boorish of the siblings in Festen. But this time, even though the film doesn’t downplay the consequences of addiction, Larsen’s character is treated with forgiving grace.
In one of the film’s most arresting scenes, Martin challenges his students’ assumptions about alcohol and addictive behaviour, comparing the integrity of the chain-smoking, whisky-guzzling Churchill and F. D. Roosevelt to the moral degeneracy of the abstemious, anti-smoking Hitler. At the beginning of the film we saw his students getting drunk and indulging in a bacchanal: they are primed to respond to his argument. Yet in this scene, the framing forces us to be aware of the one obviously Muslim student in the class. She’s both swept up in the debate but also keeps her distance from the raucous approval of Martin’s argument.
I think there is a gentle provocation in Vinterberg’s choice to make four heterosexual Western European white men the focus of his film. It’s impossible to view this film and not to question the relationship of a male filmmaker to feminism: it forces you to think about the representation of gender on the screen. There is a subtle questioning of identity politics and its relationship to Danish nationhood.
Throughout the film, as with the Muslim student in the classroom, we are aware of women at the edge of the frame. A barwoman has to deal with drunken and possibly violent men. Nikolaj’s wife is woken by his pissing in the bed. It is women who most have to deal with the consequences of the men’s drinking.
Yet a bracing clemency in the film refuses to condemn any of the characters outright. After Martin and Anika have separated, there is a scene in a cafe where he pleads for her to return. Bonnevie is terrific in this scene as she conveys the liberation Anika has found in leaving her husband, but she also makes us understand the fear and loneliness that have arisen from her choice. Her grip on the stem of her wine glass suggests alcohol is a salve for women as well.
Vinterberg’s 2005 film about American gun violence, Dear Wendy, I suspect shocked anglophone critics with its refusal of condemnation. Dear Wendy is much more radically challenging than Another Round; the actors are directed to perform in a detached style. Another Round is realist, and the actors deliver warmer, more engaging performances. Vinterberg still refuses to judge his characters.
The filmmaker has come to a quiet rapprochement with the nation he so relentlessly flayed in Festen. He isn’t uncritical, but he’s no longer enraged. Another Round begins with a quote from the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, and in one of the film’s most touching moments an anxious student takes a few slugs of alcohol and is able to deliver a fine oration on the philosopher’s battles with the meaning of personal failure.
I wish the film’s final scenes hadn’t gestured towards a possible reconciliation between Anika and Martin. It feels tacked on and unearned, and it points to the film’s greatest weakness, its deliberate shallowness. The film is dedicated to a friend who died, and in its philosophical musings and its examination of Martin’s grief, it seems to indicate it will be a study of despair. But Vinterberg keeps pulling back from really interrogating failure, of taking on board one of the most profound consequences of Kierkegaard’s philosophy – the questions of how we address our failure to others, and of how we are to act to the other when an apology is not enough. Vinterberg doesn’t share the philosopher’s religious faith, yet he no longer wants to avow the nihilism of his early films. Another Round is the work of a sceptic. Like Martin, the filmmaker is scared to commit.
The film ends with Martin getting drunk and dancing with his graduating students. Mikkelsen’s dancing is superb, but the scene isn’t a release: ecstasy muted is not ecstasy at all. Another Round’s gentleness is what makes it a winning, highly enjoyable film, but it also compromises its emotional force.
All the same, gentleness is no small thing. This film was a delight and its refusal to judge is intoxicating. Vinterberg remains faithful to the sceptic’s creed: when there is doubt, it is better to withhold judgement than to prejudge. He doesn’t confuse moralising with ethics.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 6, 2021 as "Intoxicating questions".
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