I assumed that I would not like Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, and at first I didn’t. It seemed like it inevitably had to veer into one of two directions: 1) a high-concept, rather unsavory comedy; or 2) a depressing middle-aged-man booze thing. I’m not saying it’s not either of those, but the fact that it’s both at the same time, and more besides, speaks to its value.
There is no adequate way to translate this Danish film’s original title Druk (which means binge drinking). Another Round sounds lame, though it vaguely approximates the film’s concept. The premise concerns a quartet of middle-aged schoolteachers, all stuck in their own ruts. History teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen of Hannibal) is so catatonic his students rebel because he isn’t teaching them anything. His mates are Tommy, a gym teacher (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter, a philosophy teacher (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj, who teaches music (Magnus Millang). After a jolly night of carousing at a birthday dinner, they take it into their heads to explore a hypothesis put forward by Finn Skårderud, a real Norwegian author and psychiatrist, that maintaining a set blood alcohol level (.05%) throughout the work day enhances productivity and performance, on the theory that it loosens inhibitions, fueling creativity and confidence.
Anyone with any experience of life on planet earth KNOWS where such an exercise HAS to lead, and that was my initial frustration with the movie. Truly it is a rare Saint who finds himself content with just a little alcohol, particularly if it is administered habitually. The men undertake this lark so lightly, and yet surely they must know, as we do, that it will likely end in tragedy. Naturally, at first, the experiment delivers as promised. The men are all much more engaging with their students, more entertaining, without being truly impaired, and thus they really are better teachers. (One aspect I found very insightful and moving is that Tommy, the gym teacher’s improvement comes in the form of being compassionate to and supportive of the weak kid on the team who gets picked on. Gym was the only “subject” I detested as a kid. If it has any value whatsoever, I would think it would be just that — building confidence in those that lack it, and encouraging groups of kids to be inclusive. I never heard of a physical education experience by anybody that was anything but the reverse. The subect should be called “Human Cruelty 101” or “Bullying, Scapegoating and Ostracization for Beginners).
Anyway, predictably the exercise goes quickly awry and unravels as the men drink more and more. And naturally it is noticed. (Good Lord, do you remember smelling your teachers? Their defining proximity is what dictated distance learning during the pandemic, after all. To this day I could probably ID all my old teachers blindfolded by smell alone, based on such cues as coffee breath, tobacco, mints, perfume, cologne, sweat, grooming products, and yeah, BOOZE! No one doesn’t notice booze, boozers). So hidden bottles are discovered. One guy walks into a wall and gets a nosebleed. And it gets worse and worse. A marriage breaks up. One of them is fired, and then kills himself. Sounds like a barrel of monkeys, right? The Hangover meets Lost Weekend.
The saving grace is that this movie is far wiser than some didactic lesson. If this were a Hollywood movie, it would turn into 28 Days. That’s how Americans deal with things: programs, prohibitions, trading one twisted, unhealthy obsession for another. As everyone knows, Europeans are more realistic about alcohol. In fact, this movie is framed at the beginning and the end by scenes of teenagers engaging in wild graduation Bacchanalia, 18 year olds guzzling beer and wine by the bottleful, puking, falling down, and drinking, drinking, drinking again. It looked to me very much like my own high school and college shenanigans, with an instructive difference, In the U.S., though it’s an open secret that kids party like this, it is necessarily kept hidden from grown-ups and authorities. In Denmark….there is no drinking age. They just do it out in the open. Woo boy! What a party. So in the opening scene we watch the follies of youth with amusement, disgust, concern, and nostalgia, all at once. In the final scene, our surviving three teachers JOIN them in the celebration. And instead of it being gross, as we have felt throughout a lot of the film, it becomes kind of wonderful and free, And the whole film becomes a kind of poem or essay on the culture of intoxication and its ancient role in magnifying, exagerrating and distorting the moments of our lives, sometimes enhancing them, sometimes making them grotesque and horrible, and sometimes ruining them. It’s the kind of wise, beautiful truth one finds in the writings of the Greeks and Romans, and their spiritual heirs (Byron, the Beats). Mikkelsen’s dance at the end of the picture (and his subsequent leap off the pier!) is like the procession of the Bacchae, reckless, heedless, and full of the electric juice of life.