In A Better World: Susanne Bier & Anders Thomas Jensen Profiled

Yasmeen Khan gives us some background on the director/writer team Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, whose new feature In a Better World took home this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Susanne Bier’s Academy Award-winning In a Better World (Hævnen) is her fourth collaboration with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen. It continues to follow the strong thematic strands Bier and Jensen began in Open Hearts (Elsker dig for evigt) (2002) and continued in Brothers (Brødre) (2004) and After the Wedding (Efter brylluppet) (2006), and although their new film takes these themes in new directions, the stylistic consistency makes it hard to look at in isolation.

It’s a great relief to see Bier return to Denmark after Things We Lost In the Fire (2007). Hollywood production values sat oddly and uncomfortably with Bier’s style, and good though the cast of that film was, they suffered in comparison to most of the Danish actors she works with regularly. Perhaps it has something to do with the gulf between Hollywood and the rest of the world; in Europe, Bier is a well-known, ‘mainstream’ director, but it doesn’t follow that her style translates well to the American mainstream.

In a Better World is clearly a Bier/Jensen film. It follows two intertwining stories, one of family life in Denmark, one of terrible things happening in a war-torn or poverty-stricken part of the Third World. The stark contrast highlights the universality of the film’s emotional concerns; the two worlds are connected by the protagonist, a middle-aged Danish man with a foot in both and a true home in neither. This man can show us an outside and an inside perspective on both worlds, but he can’t fully inhabit either. Back in Denmark, his family deals with smaller-scale problems, but the tragedies that strike them are just as emotionally affecting. So far, so consistent with Brothers and After the Wedding. This structure is efficient, very suited to enquiry into commonalities of experience and how the personal and political interrelate. But does it also bring too many restrictions to the storytelling?

In a Better World‘s protagonist is Anton, a doctor (Mikael Persbrandt) who divides his time between Denmark and a refugee camp somewhere in Africa (all we know is it’s an area where Arabic is spoken and where power belongs to warlords with guns). At home, his family deals with their problems in his absence – his son is bullied at school, his wife (Trine Dyrholm) is coping with their estrangement. The arrival of a recently widowed father (Ulrich Thomsen) and his son to the area is the catalyst for a series of troubling events; violence escalates at home while Anton tries to cope with the further destabilisation of the situation in Africa. In both stories, the film examines the different ways people react to injustice, and looks at how what counts as ‘revenge’, as opposed to ‘justice’, is a matter of perception (Hævnen, the original Danish title, means ‘The Revenge’.)

There are larger and lesser guilts, sins of comission and omission, and the story is powered by the necessity that only some of them will lead to redemption. Bier and Jensen find a quiet heroism in the survival of dreadful choices. Ulrich Thomsen’s character in Brothers, for example, has to choose between killing his terrified friend or dying himself. The choice he makes, for all its inevitability, is shocking – and the film is uncompromising in forcing us to deal with it. The rest of the film faces up to the effects it has on him. Likewise, Anton will confront an unbearable dilemma.

Each of Bier and Jensen’s films seems like a further distillation of the last, a further purification of narrative obsessions and visual tropes. There’s a sense when watching them of something that could be described as ‘wholeness’. That’s to say, there’s an internal completeness to them, a sense that everything they’re about is contained within their boundaries. When resolution is reached, it’s like clockwork – all the inner workings of the narrative are precisely geared towards producing the emotionally perfect result. But that’s at odds with the exploration of larger, insoluble problems – war or bullying, death or heartbreak – they go beyond the parameters of the films. There wouldn’t be any point to the films if they didn’t.

This is not to say that they’re not affecting or compelling films – they very much are both these things – but there’s a paradoxical lack that comes from their polished perfection. They show us impossible dilemmas and moments of terrible poignancy; there’s also love and hope and joy. But is there something missing in between these extremes? There’s little to no humour in a Bier film, but it’s hard to work out if that’s a huge problem. Bier works, as noted, with some amazing actors, and the performances she gets from them are rarely short of perfect. The two young boys in In a Better World, Markus Rygaard (Elias) and William Jøhnk Nielsen (Christian), are particularly extraordinary. It’s in no small part thanks to the performances that the tragedies make satisfying viewing despite this lack.

Bier’s visual style is unmistakable – the extreme close-ups, the fuzzy landscapes, the way the Danish scenes and the foreign scenes are both held far apart and also given a coherence by the deliberate and very carefully constructed colour palette. This visual style is inextricably caught up with the narrative: for example, the extreme close-ups confront us with unbearable emotions and makes us bear them. There is no compromise, no second perspective to undercut the reality of heartbreak and grief, nowhere to look to escape the sight of suffering. It’s effective, it’s brutal, it gives a very clear impression of honesty, it’s often utterly shocking. If one of the reasons to make films is to hold a mirror up to the human condition, Bier’s succeed thoroughly.

The photography of In a Better World is also extraordinarily lovely. In a world of films dominated by the vastly overused sludgy teal-and-ochre grading, Bier’s palette is a riot of clear, gorgeous blues and hot, vivid oranges. Barely a scene goes past without at least a detail in one or both colours, and more often than not, they dominate. Azure clothes next to deep orange wood. Orange boats on a clear blue sea. African dresses in vibrant prints. Orange boxes and blue tools in a murky garage. Bright blue eyes in a weather beaten face. This lushness underscores the plangent emotions we’re confronting. Every so often, the film draws a visual breath, and offers us a soothing, soft green interlude, to coincide with points of calm in the narrative. Landscapes are fuzzy; the people who inhabit them are what we’re concerned with.

Bier, like many Danish directors, has experimented with the Dogme 95 manifesto (Open Hearts is Dogme #28) and moved away from it to some extent, although not as far as, say, Thomas Vinterberg (from Festen to It’s All About Love), Lone Scherfig (from Italian for Beginners to One Day), Nicolas Winding Refn (from Pusher to Drive). It’s not surprising that Danish and Swedish cinema seem to be dominated by those who have passed the test of making a Dogme film, although some of their best filmmakers (Christoffer Boe, Per Fly, Roy Andersson) didn’t go down that route at all. Anyway, the legacy of Open Hearts is still clear to see in In a Better World, in the theme of troubled families, the domestic settings, and the Dogme-style use of handheld cameras and real locations. Bier claims it’s ‘a hybrid’; so using artificial lighting and music haven’t completely undermined the Dogme aesthetic. It would be interesting to see what would happen if she moved away from it completely.

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