Vinterberg: Another Round (2020)

Thomas Vinterberg has spent much of the past decade looking awry at his roots in the Dogme 95 movement. While his films have strayed from Dogme more than ever before, they’ve also looped back in surprising and unexpected ways, forming a body of post-Dogme work that is often truer to the original aims of the manifesto than his austere releases of the late 90s. Another Round is one such film, opening with an idyllic vision of young adults drinking and partying, and going from one drunken bonding activity to the next. While there’s the usual amount of messiness and vomiting, the tone is ebullient and upbeat, as Vinterberg taps into the life-affirming powers of alcohol, presenting it as a spiritual balm that makes his camera tipsy in turn, gravitating us towards the handheld textures of the original Dogme 95 releases.

This prologue abruptly gives way, however, to the next day of school, since these young adults are all high school students. From here, the focus of the film shifts to four teachers – Martin, played by Mads Mikkelsen, Tommy, played by Thomas Bo Larsen, Peter, played by Lars Ranthe, and Nikolaj, played by Magnus Millang. All four men have reached the doldrums of their career, but especially Martin, the main character, who senses a great collective energy exuding from the next generation of students, but can’t seem to channel it into his own lessons. He’s also depressed in his own life, confiding to his three friends that “I don’t do much, I don’t see many people” on one of their nights out. Gradually, all three confess that they feel the same way, as they decide on an eccentric program to get their life back on track.

In essence, they decide to experiment with being slightly tipsy all the time, aiming to have the equivalent of 1-2 glasses of wine in their system at any one moment. Taking their cues from a recent article that suggests that humans are born with a 0.5% blood alcohol deficit, they set out to drink a little all the time so they don’t have to drink a lot some of the time. Rather than seeing alcohol as a vice, they assume that everyone needs a certain quota of alcohol, and agree that this strategy is the best way to address and manage that requirement. They also decide on vodka as their drink of choice, partly because it looks like water, and is easier to conceal, but also because they want to think of alcohol as a form of sustenance just like water. In fact, their plan comes out of a discussion of the reactive properties of water and vodka, which occurs when they sample a fancy vodka that operates by crystallising water molecules.

This experiment has three different ramifications, each of which expands the ambit and palette of the film. Most immediately, remaining in a state of constant tipsiness gives the men a new lease on life, since they’re all victims of middle-class ennui in one way or another. Whether they’re single, married or serial monogamists, whether they have children or not, and no matter the subject they teach, they’re all slaves to monotonous routines that have come to feel inescapable over time. In the first instance, staying tipsy allows them to glimpse an escape from these routines – or at least creates enough buoyancy to make them bearable.

However, the film quickly shifts focus from Martin’s immediate personal life, and the lives of his three friends, to the impact that this perennial tipsiness has on their teaching. Martin feels the effect immediately, since he’s more relaxed, poised and courageous in his pedagogy from day one. Out of all the men, he treats the experiment most clinically, as a new kind of lesson plan or teaching strategy – a way of communing with the collective potential of the next generation of students. The main problem with his teaching was that he was already in an inebriated stupor, without the tipsy energy, but that all changes when he starts drinking, much as the film’s palette shifts to reflect the warm interplay of glass and light that accompanies each swig from his hip flask. As the tipsiness unsettles the staid compositions of the first act, Vinterberg evokes a vision of alcohol every bit as sublime as Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend – except that here the men are drinking to avoid losing any future weekends.

In other words, Another Round is about the state of flow required for good teaching – “the exact point of being neither drunk nor sober,” the state of being “all fired up and laid back at the same time.” Most films about teaching focus on splendidly isolated lessons, but Vinterberg gets that the profession is more about achieving a state of flow that maximises student engagement across multiple tasks and modes. It’s no coincidence that the men only drink during work hours, eschewing vodka after eight and on weekends, since what they’re trying to resurrect here is the contagious tipsiness of teaching in their own careers – the ability to disseminate knowledge with the almost drunken excitement needed to facilitate learning.  

Alcohol thus becomes a medium for connecting with students – not by actually drinking with them, or encouraging them to drink, but as a figure for the collective flow and momentum that fuels drinking in the first place. Beyond a certain point, actual drinking isn’t even necessary for Martin’s teaching – just talking about it, and affirming its existence as a source of collective cohesion, is enough to draw on its profound powers of flow. As a result, Martin starts to explicitly thematise alcohol in his history classes, focusing on each historical figure first and foremost in terms of their drinking tastes and habits. This is funny on its own terms, but it also signals Martin’s newfound openness to innovation, both in terms of his subject area and teaching style, as he starts to consider more revisionist attitudes towards the past.

At some level, this process mirrors the rhythm of the school term itself, since it takes the four friends a few weeks to achieve this state of flow, and then more and more alcohol to keep it consistently each week. Whereas most Hollywood films focus on isolated moments of teacherly brilliance, Another Round captures the experience of teaching over long-term periods, and the stamina needed to keep students engaged over many weeks and months. Of course, that also begs the question of what happens to this state of flow when it comes to the holidays, and here the film expands once again, taking us beyond the implications of this experiment for school life, and turning it into an allegory for the structure of capitalism itself.

Even when the four men have settled into their teaching groove, they’re still yearning for an even more optimal state of flow – one that will extend beyond their professional lives and permated every aspect of their existence. Since they have been drinking so regularly and incrementally, there’s no sign of their original moroseness by the time they finally get fully wasted. Instead, total drunkenness is wonderfully and contagiously silly – all “self-confidence and joy,” compelling them to dance with each other at any time, no matter how strange it might seem. In these later scenes, you see the straitlaced body language of middle-class respectability slacken and slide off, as an entirely new haptic vocabulary takes over the film.

The result is a kind of embodied socialism, as the four men grow restless for ever more expansive ways “to love others and life,” and “to love this variegated world.” Their yearning takes the form of a renewed Dogme ethos, as the camera follows Martin’s balletic body language by taking both the legato and staccato modes of the Dogme look to a new level of lyricism. Just as Dogme rejected Hollywood convention, so Martin’s Dogme body grows totally inimical to the bourgeois conventions of his wife, children and family. That’s not to say that he rejects them, but that he longs to incorporate them into a broader whole, just as the film longs to blend education, family, work and other capitalist silos into a new collectivity.

Of all these silos, family is meant to be the most self-sufficient – but teachers like Martin have a clearer sense than most that families couldn’t exist without institutions like education to prop them up. In these final scenes, then, Martin is torn between his existence as a father and teacher, between his need to conceive of his family as a sequestered, self-contained unit, and his capacity to imagine a society where the propulsive flow that percolates through great teaching might segue into a collective beyond the family, or at least a collective that doesn’t exclude those without familities. In the final stages of the film, this collective potential is identified with the ocean, which abstracts it in some ways, but also makes it feel even more vital, tangible and alive, especially since the closing scene takes us to the very cusp of the sea.

By the time we arrive at this scene, Nikolaj has committed suicide at sea, acknowledging his inability to capture the great flow of the ocean by immersing himself in it once and for all. As the other three men mourn him at the restaurant where they first devised their plan, they come across their former students, who are celebrating their graduation with a drunken march to the docks. Gradually, the three men join them, prescient that the next generation is more capable of challenging middle-class conventional – but also aware, in a newfound way, that they can’t hope to fully follow their innovations. In the beautiful closing scene, Martin sinks into a surreal dance that captures both this yearning for the flow, and this awareness that flow has been foreclosed for his generation. It’s a beautiful summation of Dogme style – a literal shaking off of dogmas – that harkens back to the earliest points in Vinterberg’s work.

Watching Martin, and Mikkelsen, in these final scenes is like witnessing the most volatile Dogme cinematography translated directly into choreography. After an entire film acting increasingly tipsy – a massive challenge for any actor – Mikkelsen glimpses the collective sublimity of Festen here, finally leaping into the space above the harbour as Vinterberg freezes the image for the most (literally) poised ending of his career. In the end, then, Another Round never quite arrives at the flow it envisages, but instead keeps it alive in this final shot, along with all its yearnings for a better life, a refurbished teaching profession, and a socialist sense of communal resilience that flows through this beautiful return to the Dogme moment.

About Billy Stevenson (667 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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