Another Round (Review)

Though immediately successful as a smart critique of alcohol culture, specifically in Denmark (though, as a Brit, the film certainly has messages for us), Another Round is special because it is so much more than a polemic. This is a compelling drama, and a witty comedy, populated by well realised and beautifully performed characters – and just an excellent piece of cinema. It also has wider insights that go much deeper than the overriding message, and that are handled with care and nuance.

Another immediately apparent strength of the film is its premise. We follow Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), a middle aged teacher at a rut in life, as he meets up for drinks with three close friends that also happen to be his colleagues. The overriding sense of masculine malaise, and the fact that the liquored up environment facilitates a more open conversation, pushes them to question wether it is better if man – and the gendered language here is pertinent – is just slightly drunk all the time? All are at social impasses or are generally dissatisfied, this experiment is a purpose in and of itself – it is just something to do – so the foursome decide to keep their blood alcohol level at 0.05% as they go about their working lives – and family lives, to an extent.

This is a fascinating concept as it is so open to different directions and thematic avenues. It also serves as an initial critique of masculine behaviours and societal repression. These four men are victims, but victims in interesting and often self imposed way. This is not a ‘let’s feel bad for privileged men’ movie, this is a film that actually tackles the subject of masculinity in intelligent ways. These men feel limited for a number of reasons, but – primarily – the expectations of society, and of working men, have pushed them into monotonous insularity. Men are expected to be closed off and efficient, cold even, and this is where they are. It is worth noting that their outer lives are broadly successful. They live in nice places, many have ‘good’ families and they all have a good job. Martin, our protagonist, is not good at his job but is still secure in it – and is only not good at it due to the encroaching passivity and malaise that society has pushed him into. The inner lives of these men are tragic, however. None are satisfied and this shows the melancholic realities that exist behind conventional facades – and is a great peek behind the curtain of masculinity.

What is brilliant about the film’s set up is that it never states any of its wider ideas, all are evoked naturally through the drama. Yet, by using the grammar of realist cinema, the film takes on the role of a social mirror. We are forced to reflect on what society pushes onto us and how it gets people to the state where they will do an obviously ridiculous thing just to get by. It borders on some of the ideas in Cronenberg’s Crash, especially around how a social numbness, brought around by societal convention, leads to extreme expressions, though in a different way. Drinking to feel alive merely reflects the state of affairs that already exists, which is an ironically sobering realisation.

The through line the film takes is expected and effective, we see this small dalliance with drink reap immediate rewards but then how it leads to long term negative consequences. The film never stays this simple though, much to its credit. This in no way celebrates alcoholism, but it does understand how easy it is to fall into these behaviours and to not recognise them. It also shows how a culture built around alcohol, and about alcohol as a social lubricant, directly leads to serious issues, and normalises them. There are huge negative consequences in the film but it never feels like a forced morality play, they feel like moments of reality. Characters even push past them and ignore them, leaving the viewer to realise that these spirals continue and that success is only short term. In this idea is the film’s greatest insight: the nuanced idea that self-destructive behaviours do bring results, but that does not mean they are not still self destructive – and how that is part of the problem.

The film stuck a chord with me more than it will for most, not because of the alcohol (though having close family members that have suffered at the hands of alcoholism makes me wary of films that approach it, and therefore even more pleased when films like Another Round deal with this important subject so well) but because of how it presents teaching. The film is wide enough in scope to take on a lot of allegorical and symbolic readings. It is not just a film about drinking, it is a film about what society does to us and what it takes for us to counter that. Ultimately, it is about self destructive spirals. For me, a good proportion of the film was about teaching and the state of the system I, and many others, work in.

I am a Literature teacher in a British school and, as a Brit I am taught to always self-deprecate and be humble. However, to be honest, I am a high achieving and successful teacher. I am noted in my ability to inspire students; when observed by others the feedback has always been excellent, and I consistently get very high results for my classes. I do not say this to brag, but to set the scene. I know that on my best days I am an outstanding teacher, but I know what that takes – and more importantly what that takes out of me. This comes with a pressure, though, and Another Round knows that pressure. One of the most powerful scenes is where a group of parents surprise Martin in an impromptu meeting. They amass in his room and take advantage of a power imbalance to pretty much shame him for not teaching well enough – even though their children are far from ideal students. From this scene, I knew the film understood the profession and the dynamics within it.

Why is Martin not a good teacher? Well, the film makes it clear he used to be. The questions is, instead, why is he no longer a good teacher? That’s down to the world and down to age – and I see my own fears in this. I know that being a relatively young teacher helps me, I know I rely on it. Will I still be able to inspire when I am forty and so far away from knowing what it was like to be a teenager – never mind whatever it will mean to be a teenager in eleven years time? Will I age out of this profession and how can I stay perpetually fresh and dynamic when good teaching demands being fresh and dynamic? In Another Round, we see that it is life itself – the minutiae of it – that leads to dissatisfaction. For Martin, it is having to raise his children, do his job and also having to deal with his wife working night shifts – which pushes a wedge between them. He is cut off and alienated, pulled in many directions – and that’s normal. This returns us to pressure and, as the parents scene shows, teaching is a profession of constant pressure. You constantly need to achieve and always need to achieve more and it only gets harder.

I fear this immensely. But I also fear what it means to keep up. Martin chooses not to keep up, because he can, and that’s also not satisfying. This shows how society is built to reward pressure. Later in the film it becomes clear that Martin is great: he is funny, he is gifted, he is a great dancer and he has inspiring ideas about education. So much of this is down to Mikkelsen’s amazing performance. He is able to show masculine repression perfectly, while also showing such passion and vivacity. There is such vulnerability in his turn as Martin but also such energy. He is able to be so much while conveying a completely consistent character – it is a marvellous performance. But Martin’s skills do not matter in his profession, because you just can’t keep that up. Later, we see him as an effective teacher – and I’ve been there: it’s all inspiring, witty and spontaneous feeling lessons that rely on your energy. But you can’t do this all the time, really. But, it is what the system expects of you and, if you sacrifice everything else, you can do it. And because it is literally achievable it becomes the expectation. And that is when the pressure comes in. Teaching is a profession that needs reform to allow our great teachers, and sometimes I am one of them (though definitely not always), to be great with consistency. As it stands, it crushes souls.

I see myself slipping into Martin. I see myself finding it harder to invest as much because I know that enthusiasm and investment are finite resources. And Another Round knows this too. The alcohol in this film is also a metaphor for the toll of teaching. I could dedicate myself to being the best teacher, being on all the time – as represented by the alcohol and blood percentage. Realistically, my teaching persona is a heightened version of myself and therefore to teach effectively is an act of performance. Interestingly, the alcohol makes Martin a better teacher. That is, until it doesn’t. A little bit went a long way but it could never have been just a little bit, and this matches teaching so perfectly. In my first year as a qualified teacher, I pursued this route. I gave it everything; I lived the metaphorical equivalent of the 0.05% alcohol content lifestyle. I threw everything into my job and I was damn good at it. I was an inspiring teacher; I was a great teacher. Hell, the official body that governs schools in this country – Ofsted – declared me an ‘Outstanding’ teacher when they inspected the school. I was also a mess. My social life dwindled to next to nothing, with friendships becoming neglected that I have now patched up – or have lost forever. And, more importantly than anything, my relationship really struggled. Because to be a great teacher – to be what those students needed in this system – I could not be a good partner and I could not be good friend. It was a deeply self-destructive lifestyle but I could feel it working – and working at a place that gives you so overt rewards. Until it suddenly wasn’t working at all. Because even I couldn’t sustain this – and that made me a worse teacher (I am much better at finding the balance now, thankfully, even if the system makes this very hard).

This led to an incredibly dark period in my life, one that I am now firmly out of, but this obsession – this pressure induced behaviour – was what led to it. And it felt good at the time because I was doing so well. Because self-destruction does get results. Until it suddenly doesn’t. Martin, and the narrative of Another Round, is a perfect encapsulation of this – and is why the film hits so hard for me in a way that it just will not for others. This is not a film about alcohol, this is a film about teaching and how the target driven world of teaching is its own addictive spiral. When I saw how Martin’s relationship was really affected, when his behaviour took its toll, I could barely watch. Luckily, mine weathered the storm – mostly due to the other person, ultimately, being a better person than me. And I hope that Martin’s will too. But, as the ending – which I will not spoil – shows, the temptation will always be there. I know I could always be a better teacher; I know I could always give more. And, like how Martin will always wonder if a bit of drink could sharpen him, could make him better, I will always be tempted to get pulled back into the spiral – even when I know what will happen. And that is why this film is such a perfect metaphor.

So yes, Another Round is a beautiful piece of cinema. The cinematic language has real clarity, as Vinterberg uses the techniques he learnt through the Dogme 95 manifesto, but is not limited by their rigidity. The focus on dialogue always serving a purpose for character or plot has means that the film feels real, and that every interaction has import. The handheld camera has the fluidity the film needs, and the way the free movement allows it to follow the rhythms of drunkenness is superb. The camera becomes more kinetic, or looser – with more and more out of focus. Later, it is sharp, but maybe too close in – always communicating the right idea. The use of real locations and practical lighting also gives the film reality – but Vinterberg also makes sure it is cinematically beautiful, which makes the film more widely satisfying (if less raw than something like Festen, though this small amount of archness is just what the narrative needs). The use of real students for actors is another part of the necessary verisimilitude and helps so much with the central themes. All of this is brilliant, it is a beautifully written and directed film. But, for me, it will always be the film that understands teaching – and my fears with teaching. It understands how spirals are tempting, how we get lost in them and how we never actually escape them. Because, when somebody suggests another round, it is always tempting – even when you know you shouldn’t.

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