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LFF 2020 Review: Another Round – “An ambiguous celebration”

Another Round is the second collaboration between writer/director Thomas Vinterberg and actor Mads Mikkelsen who plays Martin, a Danish history teacher for whom life has passed by without him noticing. His children ignore him, his wife works night shifts, leading a largely separate life and his students find his teaching so uninspiring and lacking in energy that they call a meeting along with their parents to voice their concerns to him. The tearful realisation of his life’s stalling comes to him while at his friend’s 40th birthday dinner attended by three of his friends, also middle-aged male teachers at the same school. As he apologises for his emotional outburst while knocking back glasses of wine. His friend Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), a Psychology and Philosophy teacher tells Martin he is right to feel that way. When they first met, Martin was going to rise to the top, obtain grants, publish studies and work towards his PhD. None of which ever happened. Nikolaj goes on to tell them about Psychiatrist Finn Skarderud’s hypothesis that humans are born with a blood alcohol deficiency and a key to opening oneself up to realising potential can be achieved by maintaining a higher level of alcohol in the blood. It should be pointed out that although Skarderud is in reality a practicing Psychiatrist, there is no suggestion he promotes this approach to life.

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The four friends decide to embark on a secret experiment, where they will consume alcohol according to the Hemmingway method, that is, no alcohol is to be consumed after 8.00 pm or on weekends, effectively drinking only during work hours. They at first adhere to a strict low level of alcohol consumption which appears to have a positive effect on their professional lives. Their lessons are enthused and energetic. Students are engaged and inspired to learn. Inevitably, their level of alcohol consumption increases. The consequences of their naïve actions take a darker and tragic turn as those around them begin to suffer.

The film may benefit from the well-known Mikkelson in the lead role, but it succeeds on the performances given by all four actors playing the disaffected middle-aged mid-life crises. They bring levels of apathy, self-pity, self-loathing, frustration and selfishness to these men while neither making them too sympathetic or unlikeable. It is quite a balancing act that only great writing combined with great performances can deliver.

What is most interesting is Vinterberger’s refusal to offer any kind of judgement on the men. Terrible things do happen and excessive drinking is in no way glamorised. One of the men complains at the start of the film how his young son always climbs into his bed and pees on him and there is an inevitability that he will come to know his son’s shame, but from a drunken adult perspective. The opening scene depicts a traditional race the students embark on around a lake where they have to drink a crate of beer, vomiting and laughing as they go. It’s apparent that drinking to excess is a part of modern life. At one point, one of the teachers gives alcohol to a student who is struggling during a crucial verbal exam. The boy relaxes and performs much better, having had ‘the edge taken off’. Families are broken up and tragedy strikes. Yet still, there is a refusal by the film to state categorically that the effects of alcohol are negative.

In many ways, it is no surprise that Vinterberger’s latest film leaves you feeling unsure how to feel about these men. He was, after all, one of the co-founders of the Dogme95 movement and is no stranger to presenting films that challenge our preconceptions of storytelling and moral positioning. There is anger, pity and antipathy to be felt for these men. But there is also an ambiguous celebration taking place somewhere under the surface that makes you feel uneasy, even though there is a smile on your face.

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