Susanne Bier has had a 30 year directorial career so far, reaching a prominent position in Scandinavian cinema with Open Hearts (Denmark 2002) and going on to move into ‘international’ cinema (i.e. English language productions) with Serena (US 2014). Currently she is making a US TV series about the decisions made by ‘First Ladies’ in the White House. She’s had her share of flops but before Serena she made A Second Chance a film drawing on the repertoires of the police procedural, family melodrama and psychological thriller. Melodrama is definitely one of her strengths for me and this film, co-written by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, is certainly powerful and at times I found it difficult to watch because I feared what might happen next.
Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a police detective who with his partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen) is called to a social housing block where they find Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a drug user they had previously arrested for violent assault. He is living with a young woman, Sanne (Lykke May Andersen) and her baby. Andreas is angered to find the baby in a filthy state, lying in its own excrement. He calls social services but they seem reluctant to act. We know Andreas has a young son at home and he is perhaps over-emotional. His chief warns him off. Simon meanwhile has his own problems, separated from his wife and son and drinking too much. Narratives about law officers with family problems are familiar enough in crime fictions and especially in Danish-Swedish TV serials such as The Bridge, but this feels like a slightly different take. At this point there is the likelihood of a domestic abuse case but no hint of the kinds of major crimes that have characterised ‘Nordic Noir’ film and TV crime narratives over the past twenty years. (This doesn’t mean I think that domestic abuse is not a serious crime.)
I’m not sure how I can set up the rest of the narrative without spoiling the whole story but I want to make clear that Andreas and his partner Anna (Maria Bonnevie) are having problems with their new baby who, as they are both in their early forties, might be a son they have struggled to conceive for one reason or another. Later there are hints that Anna might had a difficult childhood herself. When things go wrong Andreas makes a stupid decision but one that could conceivably happen. I have no experience of babies and child-rearing and others may disagree me. Now we have the ingredients of a heavyweight crime melodrama which some might see as a psychological thriller.
Modern day reviewers and critics really hate melodramas. I sometimes feel it is an almost pathological hatred for a form that predates cinema and has continued to be important throughout film history. I find it bizarre. Some of the criticisms of A Second Chance are that the film is heavy-handed, contrived and manipulative and worst of all it is using plotlines taken from TV soap operas. I had to go back through sections of the film to try to find some of these terrible crimes against scriptwriting and direction. I do have to note that some of this criticism comes from critics I generally admire, so perhaps I’m gullible and naïve? That might be true , but what baffles me is the idea that melodrama stopped being ‘acceptable’ at some point, despite the fact that some of the most revered directors of the 1940s-70s made mainly melodramas. It’s an expressionist dramatic form so criticising the use of music, mise en scène and close-up photography to communicate feelings and emotional responses seems pointless. I thought that the music by Johan Söderqvist and cinematography by Michael Snyman were appropriate for the melodrama narrative. There is also the problem that some critics see the use of a comparison between a middle-class couple with a baby and a working-class couple with a baby as banal or as overly didactic (the same kind of comments are aimed at Ken Loach and Paul Laverty for their melodramas). But Susanne Bier does not make the kinds of expressive statements that her critics rail against. She ‘shows’ but she doesn’t ‘tell’ and doesn’t necessarily come to conclusions.
Could the writing be improved? Yes, I think so. I do agree that Simon as a character wastes the talents of Ulrich Thomsen and that making him an alcoholic police officer is perhaps just too familiar. But this film has a very starry cast that offers the great performances in compensation and as a co-production it includes Swedish characters. Anna’s family are Swedish with her father played by Peter Haber (best known in the UK as Martin Beck in the long-running police procedural series) and her mother by Ewa Fröling, an actor in Swedish films since the 1970s. The most remarkable performance is by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, a well-known face from Danish TV series as well as films, who is almost unrecognisable as Tristan. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a star on Game of Thrones I understand. I’ve never seen that series but he has a remarkable presence. I remember him from the Jo Nesbø adaptation Headhunters (Norway 2011). In that film he looked a little too ‘smooth’, but in A Second Chance I think his angular good looks are utilised well. There is also a small part for Thomas Bo Larsen, another of the familiar Dogme graduates in Danish film and TV. Bier certainly surrounded herself with actors she knew.
If you are sure that you don’t like melodramas perhaps you shouldn’t watch this film: if you are open-minded and want a film that will keep you watching, albeit feeling that you should turn away, you should give it a go. I was pleased to fill in another gap in my viewings of Susanne Bier’s work. The trailer below gives away the key plot point in the film, so beware – but you’ve probably guessed what happens already.
Queen of Hearts is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK, but is also available on Sky and Apple TV/iTunes. It appears to have been released by Thunderbird in the UK in February of this year so presumably it got lost somehow during the first UK lockdown? The BFI’s digital Sight & Sound archive has a very iffy search engine and I couldn’t find an entry for Queen of Hearts. This is very odd since the film won many festival prizes around the world and has received very good reviews. If you get the chance to see it, do take the plunge. It’s a compelling watch.
This film is hard to analyse in detail while avoiding major spoilers, although I can see an argument that spoilers don’t really matter since the power of the film is in the performance of the central player and the presentation of the fictional world. Danish cinema is one of my favourite institutions, mainly because it offers some terrific melodramas. MUBI promotes this film through an invocation of Douglas Sirk and the suspense of a Hitchcockian thriller. That’s a strong call but the film is up to it. I did wonder if it’s one of those films that provides plenty of talking points but then might begin to disintegrate under too much analysis. But however it might fare under deep analysis, it is certainly gripping the first time round.
I won’t spoil the narrative apart from mentioning the one central act I can’t avoid. The central character is Anne played by Trine Dyrholm. Most recently on UK screens in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (2016), she had an early role in Vinterberg’s Festen (Denmark 1998), in my view the best of the ‘Dogme’ films and a film that has some tenuous links to Queen of Hearts. Anne is a partner in a law firm she started with an older man (perhaps her teacher or mentor?) and she specialises in cases concerning young people and abuse. She’s married to Peter (Magnus Krepper) a doctor of some kind. We learn little about Peter’s job – Anne is our prime focus. The couple have twin seven-year old girls and they live in a spacious modern house with access to a river and woods and no visible neighbours. We assume that the house is somewhere in the Greater Copenhagen area. They are clearly wealthy but there is a coolness between them. Their girls seem bright and are enjoying their lifestyle. The narrative begins after an unusual credits sequence which eventually reveals Anne walking with her dog in the woods. Quickly the narrative will produce two parallel ‘disruptive’ events. Peter is unhappy that Anne brings a client home – something she has promised not to do. He is about to go and collect Gustav, his 17 year-old son from his previous marriage. Gustav has been expelled from his school in Sweden where his mother lives.
Gustav doesn’t settle well in his new home at first, but gradually Anne brings him round and he becomes a friend to the two girls. But something about Gustav attracts Anne in a different way, especially when he brings a girlfriend back one night. Gradually Anne is drawn towards him in a dangerous way and as she becomes more distanced from Peter, desire for Gustav becomes too much – with all the tragic outcomes that you may imagine.
Queen of Hearts is written by May el-Toukhy and Maren Louise Käehne. May el-Toukhy directs, supported by striking CinemaScope photography by Jasper Spanning and music by the Swedish film composer Jon Ekstrand. They all deserve congratulations. One review I’ve seen suggests that the presentation of the house and its grounds is reminiscent of the similar use of the house at the centre of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (South Korea 2019). The two films are very different but the point about the house and grounds makes sense. This one is approached by descending a narrow walled driveway. Queen of Hearts is a family melodrama and much of the narrative is set in the house and its grounds, by the river and the woods. Both Anne and Peter are very busy but there are some family celebrations at the house. Anne’s closest friend is her sister Lina. The photography and score convey an atmosphere of encroaching danger, much of it focused on images of the woods and one specific tree as seen from the house. As well as the score there are several instances of diegetic music in the film. Melodrama needs music, but I know some contemporary audiences struggle with heavy, symbolic choices. Queen of Hearts announces its intentions when in the middle of a drinks party on the terrace with Peter’s friends, Anne gets up and plays ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell rather loudly and dances around the table.
The BBFC gave Queen of Hearts an ’18’ Certificate for the UK. In Denmark it is only a 15 but Danish cinema has a long history of tolerance for sexual display. In the US the film is ‘Not Rated’. The sex scenes are carefully shot to deflect suggestions of pornography but they are much ‘stronger’ than is common in mainstream Anglo-American cinema. Trine Dyrholm is a fearless performer. I note that my review of The Commune I wrote “She gives her all” and that is similarly the case here. There are some strange comments in the reviews I’ve read (in one Anne is described as a woman at “a drab stage in her life – the transition from middle age to elderhood”). Anne is in her late 40s! From what I’ve read about the Danish ‘age of consent’ legal framework, a relationship between and adult and a 17 year-old would not be an offence were it not that Anne is Gustav’s step-mother. What makes it worse is Anne’s other position as a counsellor of young people in precisely this situation. The narrative does offer us a moment when Anne wonders whether she is a monster. The power of the film for me is that Anne can come across as a woman to be admired and also as a despicable human being. Discovering the second doesn’t invalidate the first, though it is shocking (and not because of her desire). At one point she admits that the best things that happen are also the the things that should never happen. The only thing that annoyed me in the film were the throwaway lines of dialogue that imply that Anne came from a poorer background and that something bad happened in her childhood. We do know that her father died when she was only 11, but I’m not sure about the inference that she was abused. My other thought is that the film, like other Danish melodramas, does seem to critique the coldness and sterility of upper middle-class life. This increases my feeling that Anne has herself been ‘fractured’ so that her humanity can be so easily and tragically taken away from her. Can I bear to watch the film again?
Here’s a trailer. It does reveal a little more about the events.
DNA is in its third week out of four on BBC4 in the UK. The 8 x 40 minute episodes of this long-form crime fiction narrative are broadcast in pairs on Saturdays at 21.00 and Tues/Weds (at 00.00). Six episodes are currently on iPlayer in the UK. The serial appears to be a co-production between Nordisk/Danish TV2 and arte France/Warner Bros. International TV in Denmark. The story is set initially in Denmark and moves to both Poland and France. Promoted as ‘from the co-creator of The Killing‘ it boasts an international cast that includes Anders W. Berthelsen and Nicolas Bro, both familiar from Danish films and TV, alongside Charlotte Rampling as a French police investigator and Zofia Wichlacz (a lead in the recent BBC serial World on Fire) as a young Polish woman.
Outline of Episode 1 (no major Spoilers)
The narrative begins in Copenhagen 2014 when Rolf Larsen (Berthelsen), a Danish police officer, finds himself in a difficult position while investigating the kidnap of a child called Minna. His wife has left him in charge of their baby daughter and when a lead comes up he decides to take the baby with him on a ferry to Poland as part of the investigation. Sea-sick on the ferry he is forced to leave the baby on deck for a moment (his partner, the DNA specialist Skaubo (Bro) is finishing his meal in the lounge) and when he returns she has disappeared, never to be found. It is assumed that the baby, securely in its pram, was washed overboard. Rolf’s marriage breaks up and he is transferred to North Jutland when the kidnap case is closed without a result. Then in 2019 another case brings him back to Copenhagen along with a young police officer from Jutland, Neel (Olivia Joof Lewerissa). Rolf discovers that there is a fault in the DNA database and some records have not been uploaded. When some DNA data is re-entered into the system, the European police data-sharing system links the Danish kidnap case 5 years ago to a recent murder in France and Ms Rampling appears in Copenhagen. Meanwhile in Poland, a young woman discovers she is pregnant. Poland has strict anti-abortion laws and things start to go wrong. Poland, Denmark and France are somehow linked in what might be a form of international infant trafficking.
I confess that I found the first couple of episodes of this serial difficult to engage with. That is probably my fault but it doesn’t matter because Episodes 3, 4 and 5 ‘ramped up’ the excitement (new pandemic vocabulary!) and I’m now hooked. The first point to note is that this is standard Nordic crime fiction with conventions that have now became the norm in many other territories. The plot involves important social issues. Minna, the child at the centre of the original kidnap case is the daughter of an Iranian asylum seeker father and a Danish mother. The suggestion is that the Danish police are too quick to assume that the Iranian father has abducted his own child. The young woman in Poland is up against a system which criminalises abortion in a way that isn’t acceptable in most (all?) other EU member states. France too seemingly has some restrictions in family law that I don’t think exist in Scandinavia. Second, we often discover in Nordic crime fiction that an investigating officer finds himself or herself engaged in an investigation which in some way has an impact on a personal family melodrama. That’s true for Rolf. He still loves his wife. She is currently seeing someone else but is still friendly towards her ex. I like Anders Berthelsen and his pairing here with the dynamic Neel works well I think. The presence of senior female police officers and female detectives is now a norm in Scandinavian crime fiction, as it should be. Things are different in Poland. I note that there isn’t a Polish co-production input. On the other hand Rolf is told that the whole case is an embarrassment to the Danish police (because of the DNA database mess) and I think there is a discourse questioning national typing rumbling below the surface of the whole narrative. The credits reveal that the unit which presumably supervised the Polish narrative actually comprises Czech personnel and the footage was not shot in Poland.
I am intrigued by the casting of Charlotte Rampling. She is a fine actor and the play between her character and Rolf is gripping. I don’t think it is ageist to suggest that she is several years older than seems plausible, so why was she cast? The serial extends the familiar pattern of Nordic investigators speaking English when they have to confer with colleagues in Estonia or Poland etc. and in this case it becomes a three-way English discourse. Rampling is fluent in French and English but I’m sure there are plenty of other French actors who could have been selected. (I’m fantasising how my hero Caroline Proust, aka Captain Laure Berthaud of Spiral/Engrenages would handle things in Copenhagen.) This leaves me with the feeling that perhaps Warner Bros TV or arte wanted a star name that would work in North America and the UK?
Co-productions make a lot of sense in both the TV and film industries in terms of distribution and funding deals. They also cause quite a few problems. Three things are worth considering in this case. First, there has been severe criticism by some Danish viewers about the dialogue and its delivery by the actors. Since I can only read the subtitles I can’t comment on this. Perhaps the subtitler has rescued the dialogue for anglophone viewers? The director of the first four episodes, removed his name from the credits citing the classic ‘creative differences’ – make of that what you will. Finally, some Polish viewers are angry, both about the Czech locations standing in for real Polish towns and about the depiction of a Polish convent hospital and the Catholic church in Poland generally. All these comments are on IMDb. I should add that I am also slightly confused by the time switches in the narrative. The opening episode signals a flashback ‘Three Days Earlier’, but in later episodes, the Polish scenes which are often presented conventionally as a parallel narrative, seem to me to be possibly happening earlier than the Danish scenes. I think I may need to rewatch these episodes. Below is a brief teaser trailer (in Danish) if you haven’t watched the serial yet and are intrigued. I’m looking forward to the final episodes and I hope to return to DNA in a few weeks for some more considered thoughts.
Giraffe uses footage of an animal in a Danish safari park to introduce a story about displacement and globalisation. What follows is in some ways a familiar European ‘festival film’. It first appeared at Locarno, then won a prize at the Viennale in 2019. My first thought was that it seemed like another example of a film associated with the ‘Berlin School’. Writer-Director Anna Sofie Hartmann is Danish but she trained at the German Film Academy (FFFB) in Berlin and this film has Maren Ade as one of its producers and Valeska Grisebach and Bettina Böhler are listed in the credits as mentors/consultants. Maren Eggert has a secondary acting role in the film and she has previously appeared in two films for Angela Schanelec. These names suggest that the Berlin School links are strong. They also signal a film with a predominantly female creative team and a female perspective at the centre of the narrative.
Dara (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is an ethnologist and photographer on Lolland, one of the main Danish islands, where she grew up. Though she is now based in Berlin, she is back in Lolland for a few months on a project to document the buildings and the people associated with them who will be displaced because preparations are being made for construction of a tunnel which will link Lolland to Northern Germany. There is very little plot in what is a relatively short film (85 mins). Dara meets various people and delves into local archives to research earlier inhabitants and artefacts. But there is a romance in which Dara, a woman in her thirties, becomes involved with Lucek, a younger Polish worker who is part of a gang laying a cable for services to be used by the construction workers on the tunnel.
My main interest in the film, apart from the aesthetics of its production and the performances, is in the geography of the location and what it means for the economics and sociology of the region. Although I’ve learned something through reading Nordic crime fiction and watching films and TV from Sweden and Denmark, I hadn’t before appreciated just how interconnected the countries around the Eastern Baltic Sea were, and especially how important the network of ferry services is to Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Poland. Hartmann includes various extracts from diaries and personal testimonies in ways which sometimes suggest we are watching a documentary. (Some of the characters in the film are clearly ‘real people’.) We listen to Lucek’s fellow Polish workers who sketch out the economics of why Poles take up contract work elsewhere in the EU since 2008 and these seem like authentic conversations. Lisa Loven Kongsli is actually a Norwegian actor which adds another layer to the film’s meaning with its mix of Danish, German and Polish actors and crew. Maren Eggert’s role is as a woman working on the main ferry to Germany. She has time to simply observe the passengers and she gives us her thoughts about who they are and where they are going – and again Jenny Lou Ziegel’s camera films these passengers in observational documentary mode.
I was reminded in several ways of the French film Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (France 2014) in which a young woman is a ship’s engineer who works with various nationalities, both officers and crew, and has a traditional masculine sailor’s idea about a sexual life in every port. Like Alice, Dara finds a young man even though she has a partner in Berlin and like Alice she is shown to be a highly competent and professional young woman. Both films use diaries and video calls/filmed material to communicate with lovers/friends overseas. A final similarity in the two films is a narrative strand in which the globalised workforce finds itself at the mercy of layers of sub-contractors who come between them and the multinational company who is ostensibly their employer. So in Giraffe, Lucek and his colleagues fear that they might not be paid. I’m not clear on who is paying Dara but she seems to be ‘secure’ in some way. This kind of interaction between workers from different countries often means that conversations are conducted in English, even if in this case, the countries themselves are often geographically quite close. Dara and Lucek make love in English.
I enjoyed watching this film but a quick trawl through other online responses reveals a mixed audience response. In Berlin School style, the narrative is not laid out as a conventional story. Instead each viewer simply needs to watch and listen carefully and piece together their own story. That said, I found some scenes to be humorous and some quite moving as Dara delves into the lives of the people who owned the houses that are to be demolished. The performances are all good and I found simple pleasure in watching Dara at work. Giraffe is currently available on MUBI.
Here’s the only trailer I can find, but no English subs:
Border offers all kinds of challenges to the average film fan. It also challenges anyone who wants to write about it without spoilers. On this basis I’ll just offer clues without being explicit. The original idea is taken from a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish fantasy author who became an international name with the publication of his novel Let the Right One in 2004 and its subsequent adaptation as both a Swedish film in 2008 (and then a US film) and an English-language stage production in 2013. The story, Gräns, was first published in Sweden in 2006 and the final script for the film was written by director Ali Abbasi, and Isabella Eklöf (whose new film as director is released in the UK soon). Fans of Lindqvist’s stories will know what to expect from Border, though I understand there are some additions to the literary narrative. Ali Abbasi is an Iranian who has lived in Sweden and now Denmark. His previous film, Shelley (Denmark 2017) suggests he might have pushed Lindqvist’s script in specific directions. The fact that he is a migrant may also be significant.
Tina (Eva Malender) is a customs official – a ‘border guard’ – at the ferry port of Kapellskär on the Baltic coast, north of Stockholm. Ferries come from Åland, Finland and Estonia. Tina has an unusual ability to ‘sniff out’ contraband. She may also have other unusual abilities to go with her appearance. These include a close affinity with wild animals and with the whole ecology of her forest home. Rather than me describing Tina, just look at her image and make up your own mind what her life might have been like up until now. She lives with a man who trains and ‘shows’ dogs, but her relationship seems not to be physical. Her only other contact is with her father who is in a care home. Work is the only part of her life which gives her satisfaction, partly because her special talent is appreciated by co-workers. One day she stops a man and discovers something which starts a criminal investigation in which she takes an active role. On another occasion she stops a man who turns out to share some of her own characteristics. She won’t be able to stop herself finding out more about Vore (Eero Milinoff). I won’t say any more except that the script manages to bring together three potential narratives. Tina and Vore must discover each other, Tina must discover herself (who or what is she?) and the criminal investigation must be resolved. Any understanding of her actions must also contend with Nordic folk tales.
Border manages to resolve all three narrative questions for me. I don’t want to make direct comparisons with Let the Right One In because that film seemed to me a unique film from a precise moment. Border does something slightly different and ‘fits’ another moment when film culture generally is focused on both gender and ecology as well as questions about migrants moving across physical ‘borders’. The acting performances of Eval Malender and Eero Milinoff are very good, especially given the make-up/prostheses they have to wear. I’ve seen Melander in other films but of course she was unrecognisable as Tina. Tina’s father is an interesting character. His role, as in many Swedish films, references the care system. He also represents a man from an earlier generation with a grown-up daughter – an important figure in different ways in the novels and film adaptations of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. Border seems to me a Nordic narrative with strong metaphorical references. It seems to have worked well with audiences and suggests that Nordic cinema still has much to offer. I watched the film on MUBI. I believe it is now available on other VOD services in the UK.
The short UK trailer:
The Guilty is Gustav Möller’s debut feature, a low-budget creation based on his own story. Jakob Cedergren plays Asger Holm, a cop reduced to answering emergency calls because of – at the start of the film – an unspecified mistake. Like Locke (2013, UK-US) it is a one-location film, though it expands to an adjacent room rather than just inside a car. The benefits are a cheaper made film; the challenge is to keep it interesting.
Cedergren’s performance and Möller’s story are likely to keep most gripped throughout the film and Philip Flindt, the sound effects editor, ensures that the narrative space of the phone calls is created with a magnificent aural landscape. However, it is more than an exercise in style for, as the title suggests, the film investigates the nature of guilt. The slow reveal of Holm’s transgression, and what’s actually happening with the caller he’s desperately trying to help, add a psychological dimension. It can’t quite be called Dostoevskian but there’s enough cerebral nourishment to go with the visceral thrills.
In my initial tweeted response to the film I suggested that the direction needed more imagination. Given its low-budget origins, however, this is a little unfair and Möller does a good job. The way Holm isolates himself in another room as he gets deeper into trying to save the distressed woman and his physical reaction to frustration are all satisfyingly cinematic.
Möller has worked on a couple of episodes of Follow the Money (Bedrag, Denamrk, 2016-) (the first season, at least, was good), one of the plethora of ‘Scandi noir’ TV series that have brought brilliant grimness into our homes. The Guilty is another satisfying example from the dark side of Scandinavia.