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Thread: The Global Melodramas of Susanne Bier (and Anders Thomas Jensen).

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    The Global Melodramas of Susanne Bier (and Anders Thomas Jensen).

    By Oscar Jubis

    Danish director Susanne Bier (1960- ) has recently been awarded the Golden Globe and the Oscar for her latest film In A Better World. Locally, the Miami Film Festival gave her a Career Tribute last week and a screening of the film in advance of its theatrical release. Bier has amassed a body of work of enough significance to be celebrated. It is only fair to point out that the films which have achieved such notoriety are her collaborations with Anders Thomas Jensen, a filmmaker who is equally respected in Scandinavia but has yet to become a household name elsewhere. Bier’s films preceding her partnership with Jensen appear to have a comedic tone that is absent in her most recent work and strikingly lighter themes (I haven’t seen them. These films did not receive distribution outside Scandinavia. My comment is based on synopses and reviews).

    Jensen wrote the scripts of the four films that have come to define Bier: Open Hearts (2002), Brothers (2004), After the Wedding (2006), and In a Better World (2010). In these films, Danish families are enmeshed in global challenges such as the war in Afghanistan (Brothers), orphaned children in India (After the Wedding), and providing medical care in violence-torn Africa (In a Better World). These films explore the applicability of certain ethical values in the context of third world misery. Often the distant dilemmas run parallel to homegrown situations such as complicated grief after the premature death of a parent or spouse. These films aspire, to some extent, to serve as Kantian searches for moral imperatives, or perhaps as challenges to any kind of categorical imperative.

    In In a Better World, Anton, an altruistic doctor practicing in Africa, must first decide whether to provide treatment to a sadist warlord who butchers women, and later, whether to allow a mob to tear him to pieces in retaliation for his misdeeds. In Denmark, Anton espouses pacifist values and twice refuses to retaliate after a mean guy slaps him in the face in the presence of his young son. The film examines moral choices in the context of violent environments, not unlike David Cronenberg’s fascinating A History of Violence.

    What I treasure about the Bier/Jensen films is their unashamed depiction of intense emotional states, and the way the handheld camera Bier adopted since her breakthrough film, the Dogme-certified Open Hearts, hovers inquisitively around the first-rate cast with a life of its own. I take seriously the will-to-matter in these films, the desire to incite reflection and promote discussion of important moral issues.

    However, I find these laudable and enjoyable films to be marred by occasional melodramatic excesses. At times, the music score of In a Better World is intrusively directive or over-emphatic, for instance. More importantly, a scene in which a boy uses a knife to defend Anton’s son overreaches by having the boy wield the knife like a merciless professional killer, not a scared and confused kid building a wall around his repressed grief. Having already administered 13 blows with a bike pump to the bully, Christian grabs him by the hair with one hand while holding a knife to his throat. Bier cuts repeatedly to a close-up of the bully’s agonized face in the style of slasher flicks. Another miscalculation: having already established the viciousness of the warlord, the film concocts to have him joke and brag about his butchery in the most despicable terms imaginable. The camera makes sure the viewer pays attention to the ugly face of the man cast in the role. Anton’s moral decision is simplified by In a Better World’s insistence that the character he delivers to the mob is a monster, not a human being.

    Bier and Jensen are accomplished filmmakers willing to broach serious subject matter with verve and intelligence. However, they sometimes cross the line between emotional intensity and unrestrained, melodramatic excess to the detriment of the films.

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    A lovely read. Thank you.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Glad you enjoyed it. Thank you.

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    Interesting comments. I said about BROTHERS "It has to disturb. Otherwise it wouldn't have done its job. But I felt so brutalized by this film that I could barely think. " I thought several characters were so broadly drawn we can't sympathize with them. And then there was the remake.

    I was much more impressed by AFTER THE WEDDING and called it "a splendid film." The focus with her collaborator on issues and events of large significance is admirable, but it works better when the filmmakers know the subject of which they speak. I didn't feel that was true in the Afghanistan segments of BROTHERS. Things went better with AFTER THE WEDDING, and I liked the rich global sweep. Definitely a filmmaker to watch, but I'd have to see more of her work in person to make an overall judgment.

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    IN A BETTER WORLD opens in New York today at the Landmark Sunshine. Reviews are favorable but not raves. The NYTimes main ritic Tony Scott however does not seem to like it very much.
    “In a Better World,” directed by the Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier and written by Anders Thomas Jensen, is an elegant, somber scourge for the guilty conscience of the affluent, liberal West. Or, to put it another way, “In a Better World” is the winner of the 2011 Academy Award for best foreign language film. I’m not trying to be glib — well, maybe a little — but rather to put my finger on the merits and limitations of this ethically serious, aesthetically graceful and curiously bloodless movie.
    [Later he says]
    Everything about In a Better World feels just a little too easy: a better movie might have let in more of the messiness of the world as it is. This one falls into cheap manipulation, winding up the audience with foreboding music and the spectacle of blond children in peril.
    http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/04/01...ovies&emc=mua1

    I don't quote him as an authority, but he has authority, i.e., influence. I think AFTER THE WEDDING does contain some of the "messiness of the world as it is." It may be that her work, always ambitious and serious with her post-comedy collaborator, is uneven -- but tends to draw the admiration of the Academy, and sometimes those who do remakes.

    Also opening today, Duncan Jones's new one, SOURCE CODE, and the austere italian documentary LE QUATTRO VOLTE. And many more.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-01-2011 at 11:25 AM.

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    I consulted my lists to see if Bier's films had charted. Only AFTER THE WEDDING did, at #23 Foreign-language film released in the US in 2007. So, we agree it's the one not-to-miss. I remember thinking the other two were well worth seeing but obviously not great. Maybe it's a matter of my predilection for understatement. However there is much to admire about Bier's films, especially After the Wedding. Looking forward to your review of the Oscar-winner.

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    IN A BETTER WORLD is not showing in the Bay Area yet, though.

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