Drug education schemes have long struggled with the awkward reality that intoxication can be a blast. There is no draw in escaping grim reality to – at least at first – a less welcoming psychic environment. Movies on alcoholism have had the same difficulty. The good times are so often depicted as the grubbiest class of empty bacchanal. There is little such ambiguity when we get to the unemployment, home-wrecking and liver disease.
As we might expect from an alumnus of the Dogme '95 movement, Thomas Vinterberg dares to see all sides in this fascinating, funny, deliberately ambiguous consideration of what alcohol does to the modern man. (The big drinkers are all male here.) The Danish director began Another Round, eventual winner of best international film at this year's Oscars, as a celebration of booze, and anyone arriving for the already famous last five minutes – an uninhibited outbreak of bubbly-soaked euphoria – could be forgiven for believing he had remained true to that ambition. But Another Round is a more slippery affair. The centre of the film mixes several measures of misery with a few jiggers of irresponsibility.
The cute high-concept is laid out early on. The untouchable Mads Mikkelsen plays Martin, one of four teachers becoming increasingly dissatisfied with uninterested students and ever more miserable about the trials of middle age. At a 40th birthday party, one of the gang mentions Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud's apparently bonkers theory that humans would profit from sustaining their blood-alcohol level at a mildly juiced 0.5 per cent. After a deal of chatter and back-slapping, they elect to try out the plan and – this feels like a bit of an excuse – compile their findings into a quasi-academic report. Taking their model from Ernest Hemingway, they commit to drinking no later than 8pm.
It hardly needs to be said that resolve soon breaks down. But the plan goes well enough at first. No story about plateau drinking would be complete without a reference to Winston Churchill, and Martin, a history teacher, has his first success with a revised lesson on that controversial war leader. Weeks earlier, the students dozed through his class. Now they are energised by his lively, shoulder-rolling delivery. A games master inspires a shy young boy to score a goal. A controversial suggestion helps out a student nervous about his upcoming viva. It is not so long ago that respectable universities swelled with teachers who brought John Barleycorn to every lecture and suffered no ill consequences. So why not? Well, because alcohol is not always a compliant accomplice. Soon the friends are relaxing their regulations or giving in to complete dissolution.
We learn about most of the group through broad-stroke illustration. These are well-off men left unchallenged by the flat seas of comfortable middle years. The binges allow them to rediscover the irresponsible adventures of childhood. We get a more nuanced examination of the condition from Martin’s character. A hard-shelled actor who allows emotion to leak out only in drips, Mikkelsen visibly comes alive when the experiment begins and appears to yield results. The strong features crumple as it becomes apparent that, as well as softening inhibition, alcohol erects barriers between himself and his loved ones.
Shot in chocolatey browns amid the more comfortable suburbs of Copenhagen, Another Round underlines its later, more cautious warnings by reminding us how inexhaustibly tedious the drunk seem to the sober. The experience is often so boring that the only tolerable alternative is to join in. Boozing is catching.
And yet. That closing carnival confirms that no fingers are being wagged. Alcohol is a dangerous pal, the film seems to be saying, but that does not mean it can’t still be a pal. For some. Under certain conditions. When the fun stops, stop. Don’t try this at home.
Released on July 2nd