Wednesday 7 July 2021

On the rocks: "Another Round"

Part of the appeal of Thomas Vinterberg's Another Round - this year's Oscar and BAFTA winner for Best International Film - is the opportunity it permits to observe a social experiment in which you could easily envision yourself participating. Four variously middle-aged men - old pals from the education sector, comfortable enough to splash out on champagne and caviar for a 40th birthday celebration - find themselves entrenched at the point in life where they've started to lose whatever edge they once had. One of the group seizes upon the work of an apparently legit philosopher who suggests human blood alcohol levels off 0.05% below where it ought to be for optimal performance, and therefore proposes the group top themselves up at every available juncture with one or two glasses of grog - the proverbial sharpener. That's the experiment: open a bottle, see it off, regain your spark. Of course, it's not quite so simple as that in practice. A measure of beginner's luck is involved: a swig of vodka in the loos before a history lesson gives glum teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) enhanced coherence and the ability to crack a joke, transforming an aloof, distracted academic into the life and soul of the party. And eventually - inevitably? - the experiment will go too far. It's one thing to have your kids pee in the marital bed, quite another to soil the sheets yourself; Martin gets so relaxed he winds up walking facefirst into the staffroom door. Another Round is open to the argument this experiment might be as childishly irresponsible as Luke Rhinehart's dice games: listen to these blokes justifying their pact with reference to such bibulous Great Men as Hemingway and Churchill. (And heaven knows those sots could be a danger to others.) Yet, in a recognisably Scandinavian way, it also entertains the idea there might just be something in the philosopher's thesis that alcohol bonds us to the world in ways our sober selves cannot conceive. It's a film that commits to seeking out the sweet spot, the right level of buzz, whatever works best to propel us through the day.

As such, Another Round holds a mirror up to Vinterberg's own sometimes wayward career progress. (In promotional interviews for his latest, he's been candid indeed about the film's autobiographical basis.) Having established himself around the millennium as one of the Dogme movement's more thoughtful and accomplished mischief-makers with 1998's Festen, Vinterberg became drawn to haphazard grand gestures that never took flight (2003's It's All About Love, a film dead from its title down) and grabby, torn-from-the-headlines provocations that risked seeming terribly glib (2012's The Hunt). He's at his sharpest in the first hour, where you sense him relaxing into the company his onscreen fellow travellers provide, taking one glass for every two they put away. These introductory scenes offer the particular fun of watching slightly stuffy, uptight individuals uncoil before our eyes. Mikkelsen, still one of world cinema's most effortlessly charismatic performers, enters this frame unusually tamped down and dozy - Martin is a man sleeping on the job of life - but he gets livelier, more recognisably Mads, as the experiment proceeds: we will eventually leave him turning cartwheels, in a far, far happier place. We might worry about the ultimate fate of Martin's students, given that their lessons in the run-up to a final exam are written, played and filmed like stunts or rallies, yielding more banter than they do recitable facts - but then, hey, maybe the exam board were themselves giddy on Courvoisier.

Some of the experiment's other data proves a little sketchier. Vinterberg remains a better screenwriter than he is an imagemaker, and it's a marked failure of imagination that the film should retain next to no interest in the visual aspects of getting smashed, beyond some coordinated dad-dancing. Believe it or not, there are places where Another Round would have benefitted from having an even less sober sensibility behind the camera. As it is, this director proves a somewhat sentimental drinker, signalled by the attention he lavishes on a minor character nicknamed Specs, a dorky kid who - buoyed by some Cloughie-like pissed coaching - comes off the sidelines to score the winning goal for the school football team. Dogme drinking buddy Lars von Trier might well wonder whether Vinterberg is turning into their old sparring partner Susanne Bier with age. Yet the space separating Bier from von Trier remains pretty vast, allowing for the prospect of doing something crowdpleasing with a dash of mischief, and that, I think, is exactly the sweet spot Another Round succeeds in finding. The conclusions the second half staggers towards are comfortingly familiar ones, certainly: that there are downsides to being so off your face you start lashing out at your nearest and dearest, and forsake a nice warm bed for another long, draining night on the tiles. The first half is the fun that comes before the clock strikes twelve; after that, it's a matter of grim obligation, waiting for the sun to come up again or a text message to call you home. Moderation may yet be the best way forward. Still, the film is largely good company, and you get a highish percentage of veritas in every glass of its vino: among its many takehomes, it left me pondering how many other covert experiments are presently being conducted within the Danish schools system.

Another Round is now playing in selected cinemas.

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