David G. Hughes on Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘Another Round’ (2020)
Not too long ago, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen was trending on social media after it became apparent that he was swigging from a bottle of vodka during a monotonous press junket. It harkened back to a time when actors didn’t behave like the responsible corporate representatives they’ve become, and it was relatable in its humanity. Even though most of us have never partaken in Star Wars promotion, we understand the impulse to reach for an intoxicant that enlivens our mundane, everyday experiences, especially as alcohol consumption increases as a coping mechanism during tough times and self-isolation.
We can now call that celebrated faux pas actor research, because the topic of mid-day drinking in order to get through the drudgery is the topic of Mikkelsen’s new movie, Another Round / Druk, which is currently roaming the festival circuit. It’s helmed by Dogme 95 alumnus Thomas Vinterberg, who takes his countrymen’s appetite for excess drinking (although it almost surely applies to most European nations too) and turns it into a perennial study of human agency contra collective mores, exploring just how far from the madding crowd can one get, or want to go.
Only, this is not the sad tale of a lonely alcoholic struggling with addiction. Rather, the act of drinking is injected with a buoyant joie de vivre that gives the film its charm, and it’s framed in collective and “scientific” terms: Martin (Mikkelsen), a boring teacher and emasculated husband with no zest for life, decides with his teacher colleagues and after-work buddies Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) to conduct a social experiment in maintaining a consistent and optimal level of drunkenness throughout the day, a notion inspired by the idea of the psychologist, Finn Skårderud, who asserts that our human blood has an alcohol deficit of 0.05%. Drinking, they hypothesize, will amend the anhedonia and banality of their comfortable, middle-class lives, making them more receptive to the world and impassioned in their lives as workers and lovers.
At 51 and 54 years-old respectively, one gets the impression that, despite the comedic frivolity of the concept, this is personal to Vinterberg and Mikkelsen. Tibits of autobiographical detail seep into the script, like the fact that Mikkelsen’s character is a former ballet student (a useful skill that Mikkelsen deploys in an agile dance sequence to the jovial pop anthem “What a Life” by Danish group Scarlet Pleasure) and Vinterberg uses the credits to offer a touching dedication. Like Dante Alighieri before them, who opens his Divine Comedy with the admission of a midlife crisis that sparks the voyage through the inferno and into the celestial realms, Vinterberg and Mikkelsen are using their art—and alcohol as the means for descents and ascents—to navigate the very same crisis.
As Danes, the question of negotiating a midlife crisis becomes personal and collective. A drink-heavy nation, Vinterberg is having fun with the striking contradiction between the nation’s fondness for inebriation and its image as a healthy, well-functioning society. So he blends the two and ironically pushes it to its logical conclusion: can excessive drinking be good, or even healthy? It’s a neat way for Vinterberg to poke holes in national self-image, but it’s also an expression of distress about the absence of genuine spiritual guidance in a highly secular nation, and how we turn to its substitutes—spirits, tellingly named. It’s also telling that the group’s escapade into drinking is vindicated on a flimsy claim to “science”.
Vinterberg is bold enough to explore the emancipatory effects of being drunk, as Thomas and his coterie begin to experience all the pro-social benefits of the chemical change that allows us to know the consequences of our actions, but simply not care. In one scene, Martin uses his newly-inspired history class to compare the freedom-loving leadership of full-time drinker Winston Churchill to that of puritanical teetotaller Adolf Hitler and wisely tells his class, “Nothing is what it seems.” That’s a refreshing counterpoint to the almost exclusively villainous way that alcohol has been depicted on screen throughout the vast majority of the cinema’s history. If you took it from the cinema, you’d never know there was anything positive or pro-social about drinking at all, which experience tells us is false.
Vinterberg’s concern with the boundaries of individuality and underlying Dionysian urges is quintessentially Scandinavian in the context of orderly and sensible democratic socialism. In The Hunt (2012), Mikkelsen and Vinterberg’s previous collaboration, we saw the frightening power of groupthink castigation and what philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte called the “medusa glance” of society—the gazes that freeze our freedom, quell our eccentricity. There is nothing here that matches the emotive pugilism of that film, particularly the church scene that saw a cast-out Mikkelsen sitting in a nest of staring vipers and weeping in desperate patience for God’s divine justice. The tension between the individual and society will always be rich subject matter, so it’s strange how uninteresting and prosaic Another Round actually becomes as it stumbles into the second-half.
Drinking can be fun and empowering, the film tells us. That is until you drink too much. This is a perfunctory moral, and it’s a perfectly sensible one. But it would have been more interesting had the film, like the characters themselves, followed through on the promise of its experimental convictions. We are granted barely any screen time before the agreed terms of the experiment, which are to maintain a 0.05 level of alcohol throughout the day and stop by 8:00 pm—as Hemmingway did it—are discarded and we lurch into the territory of Promethean moralistic warnings about the repercussions of excess drinking, the threat of dependency, biting off more than you can chew, and other lame attributes of public health advice or old aphorism. Concerning alcohol, Another Round is little more than a rather uninteresting, though valid, testament to the ancient notion of “aurea mediocritas”, the “golden mean”, the course which celebrates the passions in sensible moderation.When early silent cinema was taken over by the Victorian middle-class following its bawdy first few years, a genre of anti-alcohol narratives began to emerge that encouraged the unwashed to discover their social virtue. I was reminded of those films watching this, which is odd considering I was anticipating something a tad more pugnacious and morally audacious from the director of The Celebration / Festen (1998).
Perhaps I, like many critics, are being unfair to Vinterberg here, the result of assumptive expectations established by his historical association with the hell-raising Dogme 95 movement. Rather than youthful transgression, it’s more accurate to suggest that Vinterberg is following in an older tradition; in the book, I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, Roger Scruton makes the point that “The symbolic use of wine in religious cults is reflected in art and literature, in which magic drinks are conceived as mind-changing and even identity-changing potions.” It’s fair to say that alcohol is only the salacious catalyst to explore the topic of spiritual redundancy and emasculation, and ask what one can do to escape it; Vinterberg’s interest is chiefly personality transformation and the magic of life itself. No libertine polemic or cause célèbre, this is the work of an older, wiser man, a politically dynamic filmmaker with a bittersweet appreciation of life’s vagaries. In The Hunt, Vinterberg sides almost entirely with the individual’s plight against the collective. In this, he discovers the utility of social shaming mechanisms.
All of these concerns are anchored in Mikkelsen’s typically robust performance. Despite his obviously handsome exterior, he manages to convey the pitiful invertebrate situation of the character’s initial state with aplomb. Dining with his friends, refusing a glass of wine because he’s driving, they politely and gently take him to task for his insipid state, morose teaching, and the abandonment of his PhD. The creeping despair of realising that your friends think you’re boring—and that they’re right—becomes palpable, the comatose state of his affect receptors expressed in desperate gulps of red wine and teary eyes that can break hearts.
As a story of personality transformation, Another Round is virtuous and fun-loving, if a little anodyne. It’s certainly a truism that rather than confront deeply rooted inner discontents, most European men of middle-age turn to drink. It’s helpful that Vinterberg is able to express this important theme in an accelerationist tale with mainstream appeal. Only its life-affirming conclusion, while agreeable and visually memorable, is emotionally inexact, tacked-on, and rings evasive in its incertitude and fantastical whimsy. The antidote to despair, it suggests, is joy. That’s fine, but a little superficial. And how we get there, exactly—if not by alcohol—the film is unable to tell us.
“Another Round” screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival and is scheduled for UK wide release 27th November 2020.
Another Round / Druk
Director Thomas Vinterberg
Writer Thomas Vinterberg, Tobias Lindholm
Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen
Editor Janus Billeskov Jansen, Anne Østerud
Cast Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, Lars Ranthe, Maria Bonnevie
Duration 117 minutes