A bold and deft exploration of alcoholism
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic 2020’s Cannes Film Festival turned out to be a subdued and restrained affair, with films being distributed for viewing through online portals and no physical appearances or red carpet rolled out. As such many of the films showcased at the festival this year have gone below the radar in terms of awareness. It is a blow for the films themselves, who will struggle to find recognition in international markets already crippled due to lockdowns and economic downturns. It is therefore a miracle that Danish film Another Round (2020) is starting to garner media attention thanks to its positive performances in European award ceremonies.
Another Round is the story of a group of friends who all teach at the same school in Denmark. Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) is a history teacher, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) is a gym instructor, Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) is a psychology professor, and Peter (Lars Ranthe) is the music teacher. Each of the friends feels slumped, depressed, and demotivated with their lives both at home and professionally; however, during a birthday dinner for Peter, the group begins to talk about a far-flung theory that having 0.05% alcohol level in your bloodstream is ideal for a human to function capably. In a desperate attempt to find purpose, the group decide to embark on an experiment to put this theory in practice, seeking to stay buzzed/drunk throughout each day.
Another Round is directed by prolific Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who seems to have a particular fascination with the intersection of the immunity that youth attains, and the complications and roadblocks that can appear with age. This was explored to a lesser extent with The Hunt (2012), where he also partnered with the great Mikkelsen. In Another Round, Vinterberg opens the film following a group of adolescents drinking to their hearts content, frolicking and suffering no consequences from authority or their friends; they seem immortal. This opening scene clashes with the stories we begin to explore with the four friends; they never show a jealousy towards the students they teach, but nevertheless a desire to return to that infallibility is what drives their pursuit of alcohol.
As such, Another Round is a much more subtle exploration of alcoholism and its roots and motivations than might appear at first. The four friends begin to gradually increase their alcohol consumption, and, in what is a fascinating demonstration and conclusion, they all begin to perform better at their jobs and at home. They become disinhibited from their worries and depression and thus are able to function better, being more direct and creative. I found this to be an incredibly important point in Vinterberg’s thesis: showing how the use of substances and how their effect on you can become a further addiction. After a while the four friends discover their need and dependency on alcohol, how it transforms them into their ideal selves. Thus ripping their experiment away would equate to returning to their deep depression and meaningless lives. This contrast is achieved well by Vinterberg, using static and medium shots in the first act of the film where we find our disillusioned characters, but then becoming more dynamic and personal as the characters become further intoxicated.
It can be quite the challenge to make honest films about alcoholism or drug abuse. If one goes by the route of total condemnation, showing everything as a negative, it risks not showing the true danger and allure that these substances can have. Other times, these substance abuses are played for laughs in comedies, which subsequently justify and sanitize their use. Vinterberg achieves a difficult balance, showing both how the friends have a great time when at the bar and drinking, and yet subsequently the consequences of injury, embarrassment, or social and professional rejection. This equilibrium helps Vinterberg pose the concept of how alcohol strengthens our characters, making us realize how much of a sacrifice and difficulty it would be to simply quit. It is here that the power of the performances comes into play and the quality of the actors becomes crucial.
Thankfully Vinterberg has an incredible strong quartet of performers led by the always stellar Mikkelsen. They are able to truly navigate the fine line between cautionary tale, and strong allure with a deft hand. Mikkelsen himself is at the height of his powers in Another Round, showing the true dilemma inside him, as he realizes the dangers and doom of his addiction, and yet is unable to stop himself. This is most tragically showcased when he is drinking from a glass while his eyes fill up with tears, and yet he manages to restrain so that he is only on the verge of crying. It is frequently commented how all actors love to cry on screen, but the sign of a truly great performer is in showcasing the fight to hold back tears. As such Mikkelsen demonstrates, once again, why he may be one of the best actors working today.
In the concluding aspects of quitting, Vinterberg offers a satisfyingly non-Hollywood answer. The four friends are not enlightened magically and suddenly become perfect husbands and professors, the result is much more complex, Sisyphean, contradictory, and tragic. Vinterberg helps create a perfect arc in which he demonstrates the black hole that alcoholism can become; how the magnetism and allure of a cool filled glass can prove utterly irresistible for those who suffer from the condition.
In the end, Another Round proves to a refreshingly (no pun intended) bold take on alcoholism, its toll, its allure, and the difficult odyssey it can prove to become for its victims. Vinterberg is able to deliver some risky but well balanced themes and conclusions, which are greatly enhanced by a stellar cast, and the insuperable Mads Mikkelsen.