It is never difficult to distinguish between a film by Thomas Vinterberg and a ray of sunshine. He made his name with Festen, back in 1998, an explosive revelation of sexual abuse, incest and suicide at a patriarch’s 60th birthday, and a triumph as the first Dogme 95 film.
The Hunt, released in 2012, was a kind of Festen in reverse: Mads Mikkelsen, the great beau of Danish cinema, is wonderful as a lonely, middle-aged primary school teacher whose kindness to a little girl leads to a false accusation of abuse. Monstrous persecution by his own community ensues. Vinterberg’s last film, Kursk (2018), was so doom-laden it was almost unbearable to watch. After a merry, drunken wedding, the entire crew of the submarine die horribly on the seabed.
Amid all the misery, Vinterberg recurrently offers drink as the great release, festive male boozing as the best life has to offer. He may not be alone in thinking this in Denmark. Now he has made Another Round, a thought-experiment on the subject. “We wanted to examine and salute alcohol’s ability to set people free,” says Vinterberg. To celebrate it, even.
Mads Mikkelsen plays a teacher again, this time at a secondary school, stranded in middle-age. Once a dashing figure, Martin is defeated in life – and such a bad history teacher that children and parents alike complain. Things are no better at home. “Do you find me boring?” he asks his wife. “You’re not the same Martin I first met,” she says. “OK,” he replies limply.
His male colleagues are equally despondent. Gym-master Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) has not recovered from his wife’s exit, and is partnered up with an ailing dog instead. Music teacher Peter (Lars Ranthe) wishes he had started a family. Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) has a young, loaded wife and a splendid house by the sea – but his children pee on him in bed and his wife Amalie (Helen Reingaard Neumann) orders him about, telling him to buy nappies, straw for the rabbits and “fresh codfish”.
The four celebrate Nikolaj’s 40th birthday in a fine restaurant, Martin intending not to drink so he can drive home. But, confessing his misery, his resolve breaks and they have a good night. Inspired by the claim of real-life Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud that humans are born with a blood alcohol level 0.05 per cent too low, the group devise an experiment whereby they will secretly tot themselves up to this level during the working day and record the results. Such a rational approach to unreason, so perfectly Scandi.
All goes swimmingly at first, their confidence boosted. Peter’s choir sings a patriotic Danish song more soulfully than ever before; Tommy inspires a shy little boy called Specs to score a winning goal. Martin’s class applauds when he tells them about Churchill’s achievements despite being permanently drunk, and he surprises his wife with a canoeing holiday and sex in a tent. Then, to ratchet up the story, the four decide to take the experiment to the limit and get totally plastered, with inevitably disastrous consequences.
Vinterberg says he wanted the film to be balanced about alcohol, nuanced. But there’s a clear implication that not only can drinking make life more bearable, but also enhance performance all round. A worried student is helped to pass an exam by gulping down vodka first. Throughout, the camerawork endorses drinking, gleefully mobile when under the influence, balefully static when sober authorities intervene.
A final magical scene of joyous, drunken dancing down by the docks suggests that only in such flights can the freedom of youth be recovered. Here, Martin seems completely released from gravity (Mikkelsen was originally a gymnast and dancer). The sequence has a particular poignancy. Another Round (Best International Feature Film at the Oscars, Best Film Not in the English Language at the Baftas, partly because of this scene, I suspect) is made irresistible by Mikkelsen: such a noble face, such a wonderful presence even when most withdrawn, battered and saddened. However, for those who won’t read subtitles, an English language remake has already been announced, starring Leonardo DiCaprio…
The film is dedicated to Vinterberg’s daughter Ida, who died in a car crash, aged 19, a few days into the shoot. She was going to play Martin’s daughter. It’s set in the school she attended, her classmates play the students. It is remarkable that Vinterberg was able to complete the work in these circumstances.
And should alcohol be celebrated at all, let alone in this particular way, as though it might measurably offer improvement? It’s not a new question. When the artist Joshua Reynolds tried to persuade Samuel Johnson that drinking improved conversation and benevolence, Johnson fiercely retorted that the drinker is not improved, “only not sensible of his defects”. But, on the other hand, he was not ungrateful for that. “To make a man more pleased with himself, let me tell you, is doing a very great thing.” He drank wine, he said, “to get rid of myself, to send myself away”. We can drink to that.
Another Round (12A)
dir: Thomas Vinterberg