Woody Allen once said that it’s easy to like people who make us laugh, but people who make us think don’t get invited to a whole lot of parties.
If that’s true, then Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier must have to eat at home most nights. Not only does she make us think, agonize and hold our heads in confusion, she’s also adept at stinging our tear ducts until it becomes unbearable. Bier has made some of the most moving and visually arresting films of our time, crammed with passion and integrity, but often difficult to watch.
In 2004’s “Brothers,” a POW comes home from enemy lines in the Middle East to his family, only to be eaten up with suspicion that his wife is having an affair with his own brother. And in 2006’s controversial “After the Wedding,” a cancer-ridden businessman entrusts his wife and grown-up daughter to his wife’s ex-lover, now in charge of an orphanage in India.
Bier’s latest, “In a Better World,” won both an Oscar (Best Foreign Language Film) and Golden Globe Award this year, but it’s hard to imagine her whooping it up at a Hollywood house party.
“In a Better World” is less tight, more loosely structured and perhaps the most complicated of her works. The characters’ lives loop in and out of each other’s, while they all nurse a crushing grief and misery unshared (or so they think) by anyone else. The sheer proportional mass of emotion that comes at the viewer in weighty shovelfuls gets wearisome very quickly, but we rally and continue watching. After the midway point, something similar to a runner’s high assails the senses.
The opening scene shows a Kenyan refugee camp, where dust rises from the ground and coats the faces of smiling children as they chase the truck that contains Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor who commutes between this camp and an idyllic Danish town where his wife holds the fort with their two young sons.
Anton’s ostensibly selfless dedication to helping the poor and sick in Kenya helps him sidestep troubles at home. An incident of infidelity has estranged Anton from his wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), and whenever he’s back, he holes up in the family cottage with the kids.
The couple also struggle with their 10-year-old son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), being bullied in school by the Nazi-like Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm), and waver between over-protection and leaving the boy to sort things out on his own.
For Anton, life in Kenya is perhaps easier than at home: In the camp, he’s worshipped as a hero, and the boundaries of good and evil are clearly mapped out.
Elias finds a friend in Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), a new boy who has moved to Denmark from London. Christian helps keeps Sofus at bay, using more than his fair share of retaliation. Elias is confused by the way Christian’s icy exterior masks a burning anger, and Nielsen delivers an eye-opening performance with every frame.
Christian has made revenge (which is the meaning of the original Danish title, “Havnen,” as well) his main agenda, and his thirst to strike back extends beyond himself to Anton, who tries to teach the boys a lesson in antiretaliation (“hitting back is how war happens”) by letting himself be punched around by an oafish mechanic. To Elias and Christian, however, Anton’s behavior is simply a sign of weakness.
Marianne, the sole female character, comes off as somewhat passive, letting fate take its course when it comes to dealing with Elias and Anton. That said, she represents something deeply symbolic in the lives of the males around her — for Anton she has become an unattainable love object, more distant than the much-desired peace that keeps eluding his refugee camp. For Elias, she’s someone he can’t talk to, as he has put up a wall of alienation.
But it’s Christian who feels the most impact from her presence — Marianne represents for him both a mother figure and a dangerous female presence that threatens the little niche of masculine rage and violence he has carved out for himself.
Losing yourself in the myriad intricacies of “In a Better World” is rewarding, but make sure you surface for air.