Thomas Vinterberg’s films, at least the ones I have seen, have a unique quality that I can only effectively define as an ability to champion multiple seemingly contradictory perspectives simultaneously, thus splitting their audiences down the middle on potentially controversial and charged subjects. I guess what I am trying to say is that Vinterberg is a skilled button-pusher who takes after his most influential early collaborator, Lars Von Trier. However, his modus operandi does not rest squarely on shocking the audience into reflection, but rather on coaxing them gently into a trap of veritable cognitive dissonance.
Another Round, Vinterberg’s latest effort co-written with Tobias Lindholm, testifies to this assertion quite well as it seems to have split the commentariat between the seemingly two opposing points of view: one espousing life-affirming tone of the film amplified by the now infamous theory that alcohol is required for humans to reach their highest potential, and another coming down hard on the dangers of alcohol dependency and its destructive impact on people’s lives. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film was able to convince a section of the audience to try and grapple with these two perspectives concurrently, which admittedly, might be what gives the film its unique bittersweet flavour; however, I tend to be of the opinion that Another Round isn’t about alcoholism at all.
Well… It is. It’s inescapable. And any conversation about alcohol as a social lubricant or liquid courage is certainly being had within the confines of the narrative. Though I think one must dig a bit deeper and figure out how to square that circle and fit the two aforementioned completely opposing perspectives onto the same plane of discussion. Thus, it is required to disregard what’s right there on display from the very opening frame – the visual omnipresence of alcohol consumption and its place as a cultural staple – and focus on the characters. However, I have to stress that simply having a look at what their little alcohol experiment does to their lives is not enough to fully appraise the landscape of what Vinterberg may be touching upon with this story.
It’s almost all too easy to fall for our own confirmation bias in this regard and I have a feeling this is what the filmmakers want us to succumb to. This is how they push our buttons because they feed us something that we might already have a preconceived opinion on. It is a given that some viewers will resonate stronger with the devastating portrayal of how one’s life decomposes under the influence of one of the most highly addictive drugs known to humans, ethanol. On the other hand, some will latch onto the case the characters are trying to make that may or may not vindicate their own relationship with alcohol. There’s no denying that Another Round is an ultimately life-affirming experience. Nevertheless, without pulling back and finding something more general to hold onto, the viewer would be required to perform a lot of mental gymnastics to remain morally married to their perspectives. After all, how am I supposed to cheer for Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), who has seen clear improvements (if only short-lived) to his motivation to teach and his own marriage, when others have quickly descended down the spiral of alcohol abuse and ruined their lives? Am I to succumb to a technical discussion of moderation and identifying where the line is by observing the four characters – one by one, without fail – crossing it and letting alcohol dictate their lives? Are we to discuss how Churchill managed to stay perpetually hammered while he was busy winning a war? Or should we get to the nitty-gritty of how Hemingway conducted himself while writing some of the best prose of the twentieth century? Or is there something else Vinterberg wants me to find in the film?
I think it’s the latter. The blood alcohol content experiment and alcoholism in general are merely narrative tools meant to illustrate a more fundamental and culturally-entrenched problem within our society. After all, what does alcohol do to the human experience? As I already remarked above, it is called a social lubricant and liquid courage for a reason. It lowers one’s defences, releases inhibitions and makes one more likely to make decisions they’d be hesitant towards otherwise. And that’s what the film is about – human inhibitions, or maybe even more specifically male inhibitions. This isn’t an accident the four friends are men because Vinterberg wants to have a discussion about some truly profound male-specific issues that many of us may know all too well. I suppose a lot of it is entangled in the term “mid-life crisis” but I happen to think this term is mostly deployed pejoratively. It is almost a put-down or a negatively-charged judgment dispensed upon someone who might be dealing with some truly serious problems relating to identity, purpose and motivation to live at all.
This is what Another Round is at its core. It’s not really about alcohol or the life-affirming and destructive force it can wield. It’s a simple study of what happens to men after a few decades of navigating adulthood. Once young, virile, full of hope, dreams and aspirations, men often find themselves trapped in lives they barely recognize. They have not accomplished what they had thought was within their grasp and have now realized that death is a prospect they would have to come to terms with one day. They are overwhelmed with self-doubt, unable to decompress due to immense responsibilities placed upon them and crippled by the ingrained societal expectation of excellence and emotional impenetrability. This is what connects Martin, Tommy, Peter and Nikolaj. They are fundamentally unhappy and alcohol is what helps them cope. However, it works differently to what they think it does because it doesn’t solve problems for them. It gives them the courage and tempers their own self-doubt, but that is it. They have to solve their own problems. Martin has to face up to his long-standing marital problems and staying perpetually hammered ain’t gonna fix it. His friends have to step up to the plates of their own. Some do. Some don’t.
It is abundantly clear that Vinterberg never describes alcohol as a panacea. It is not a potion granting superpowers. It only awakens what we already have and amplifies it a bit by virtue of not letting our own inhibitions stand in our own way. Therefore, I think it is either erroneous or incomplete to stop at discussing alcoholism or the idea of seizing the day as a way of living the life to the fullest. Sure, it’s all there, but at least from where I am sitting Another Round is first and foremost a conversation about being a man and how difficult it is to stay abreast of everything a man must juggle in his many roles as a husband, father, colleague, friend or a teacher. Yes, ultimately the film is an affirmation of life, which is perfectly epitomized in its final scene where Martin breaks into a mesmerizing dance routine. After all, he does have a reason to celebrate but he is most importantly free of his own fears. Martin from the beginning of the film would never do that, even drunk. What sets him free is the realization that because he has finally reconnected with his own soul, life began to come together for him.
So, leave your cognitive dissonance at the door, if you please. I don’t think you are intended to think about what alcohol does to your body and relationships. You are invited to reflect upon your own past mistakes and – without liquid courage, mind you – figure out that you needn’t care what others think of your decisions. Do what you love. Tell your partner how you feel. Don’t bottle emotions. Break into a dance if you have to. Mid-life crisis is a serious construct, but a construct nonetheless, and it can be either circumvented or defeated with a little bit of reflection and self-awareness, which alcohol definitely affords when dosed in moderation. Our fathers and grandfathers had been well accustomed to the idea of drowning out the sorrow of their existence, as though it was a given existence must be filled with sorrow in the first place. Life is tough, as it should be, but problems can and should be solved as they arise because the price for suppressing our own emotions is total and irreversible demise. And that my dear reader is what Another Round is all about.