Friday, April 15, 2011

Susanne Bier's Trite and Middlebrow In a Better World

In a Better World/Haevnen
Twenty years ago, I happened to catch a debut feature at the Montreal World Film Festival called Freud Leaving Home. I was so impressed by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier’s powerful and caustically funny tragedy of a very dysfunctional Swedish Jewish family that I, and another film critic, called the head of the Toronto International Film Festival to strongly urge that, if there was still room, they add Bier’s movie to their upcoming festival lineup. The call was to no avail and for awhile, at least, Bier’s films didn’t find their way to TIFF. I caught her third movie, Like It Never Was Before (1995), in Montreal, too and appreciated the provocative and moving tale of a middle-aged man who leaves his family for another, younger man, at least in part to recapture his youth. So, by the time, Toronto’s film festival began showcasing Bier’s work, with Open Hearts (2002), she was something of a known quantity to me. Toronto has chosen to feature her work since then, including presenting her eleventh film, In a Better World (2010), which won this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. But something’s been increasingly lost in recent years. As Bier’s critical and popular star has risen, conversely her films have diminished in impact and quality. In a Better World continues in that disappointing vein.

Mikael Persbrandt in In a Better World
The movie revolves around two families. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a doctor who spends much of his time abroad, practicing in a Sudanese refugee camp. Separating from his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), he’s somewhat removed from the lives of his two boys, particularly his 12-year-old son, Elias (Marcus Rygaard), who’s routinely bullied at school. Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) has just moved back to Denmark from London with his businessman father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen). The two are still recovering from the death of Christian’s mother from cancer, with the boy blaming his father for ‘lying’ to him about the real state of his mother’s illness. Obviously, he harbours a lot of anger, which he releases somewhat when he confronts Elias’ tormenters. As the boys try to cope with schoolyard bullying at its most vicious, Anton has to deal with a problematic situation in the refugee camp. It concerns whether he should treat and save the life of a warlord who, horrifyingly, terrorizes his people by cutting open the stomachs of the women he's raped and impregnated in order to determine the sex of his child.

Bier and her collaborator/screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (Open Hearts, Brothers, After The Wedding) may not mean to directly compare the two scenarios, in Denmark and Sudan, except to point out that adults, too, have to occasionally step up to the plate and confront unpleasant realities. But their juxtaposition of the two storylines still registers as facile and offensive, as mean schoolboys are not remotely equivalent to a vicious rapist and murderer. And by only glancingly bringing up the African plotline before moving on and staying with its Danish setting, the film suggests that the life and death struggles of the Sudanese do not carry the moral weight of Christian and Elias’ comparatively minor dilemmas. Those dilemmas grow in seriousness as an increasingly unsteady Christian begins to up the ante in terms of getting revenge on his ‘enemies’ but the film retracts into safe movie making.

Ulrich Thomson and William Jøhnk Nielsen: In a Better World
For whatever reason, Bier’s films of late, including Brothers (2004) and After the Wedding (2006) have devolved into mainstream, conventional and tidy movies that contain more than their fair share of melodrama. Brothers, which also starred Ulrich Thomsen, and was remade in 2009 by Irish director Jim Sheridan, was an unwieldy mix of a trenchant story of a soldier suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after being captured and imprisoned in Afghanistan and a rather ordinary, dull love triangle which ensued when he returned home. After the Wedding began well with a Danish manager of an orphanage in India being offered a huge sum of money as long as he returns home to meet the philanthropist who is promising the funds. But it quickly heaped on too many contrivances, plot twists and coincidences to succeed as lasting drama. Unlike those recent films, which, at least, had some virtues, In A Better World is almost entirely devoid of riveting characters and compelling situations, except to inform us that calling someone a ‘Swede’ is a pejorative in Denmark. The male parents are flat cinematic creations and the boys come across as bland concoctions, too, less interesting than most teenagers we see on screen or on television. (Their acting is adequate but the cast is hard pressed to bring their ciphers to life.) Trine Dyrholm’s Marianne is a stronger creation; her wounded, angry mother, desperately trying to understand what her son is going through at least possesses some cinematic red meat.

Director Susanne Bier
Mostly, In A Better World plods along, as its story grows more and more trite and dramatically inert until you just wish the damn thing would end already. It doesn’t so much conclude as fade out. What happened to the director of the gritty, startlingly fresh Freud Leaving Home and the filmmaker who brought such a unique sensibility to Like It Never Was Before? Even Open Hearts, Bier’s ‘Dogme 95’ movie, based on the Danish film movement which was predicated on traditional narrative film elements and avoided use of so called artificial elements, like music scores and special effects, was much better than the norm. Its complex, emotionally messy and sharply realistic look at lust and love made for gutsy filmmaking. Now Susanne Bier’s become a tasteful filmmaker, (over) loading her movies with heavy-handed music, panoramic vistas and large emotions and rendering her previous prickliness and contrariness moot. In retrospect, I’m not surprised that the crowd pleasing, middlebrow and easily digestible In a Better World won the Oscar (though its competitor Incendies was by far the superior film), but its victory might lead some to think there’s more here than meets the eye. There isn’t. In a Better World is as self effacing as they come.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He will be teaching a course on science fiction in the movies and on television beginning in late April at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute. For more information on theses courses, please consult their website

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