Two films offered by their respective countries for Oscar consideration, both of which recently made the Academy’s Foreign Language short list, and both in fact being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics in April are Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies and Susanne Bier’s 12th film In a Better World. Both films also played at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and they mark the return of their respective filmmakers to Sundance after a number of years, while exploring a few similar themes in dramatically different ways.
Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, Villleneuve’s first feature film since 2000’s Maelström follows twin siblings Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Desormeaux-Polin, Maxim Gaudette) who are commissioned by their late mother’s will to find a father they believed dead and a lost brother they were never aware of.
Jeanne is the first one to go back to her mother’s homeland and as she starts looking for clues of her father’s identity and his whereabouts, the story jumps back to the ’70s to show her mother Nawal’s ordeal as a teenager, getting pregnant by a lover not in her family’s clan, but the baby taken by her disapproving grandmother to an orphanage. As war breaks out in the country, Nawal (Lubna Azabal of “Paradise Now”) frantically looks for her son, and witnesses all sorts of atrocities before ending up in prison herself after getting involved with a terrorist plot to kill the right-wing Christian leader. It’s over an hour before we see Jeanne’s brother Simon again, and that’s when he travels to the area to find his sister and continue the quest to find their lost brother. Along for the journey is their notary and their mother’s boss, played by Quebec’s Rémy Girard, who originally read the will that assigned them the task and who urges the twins to follow through even as their journey gets darker and more dangerous.
To say any more about the plot would be doing the viewer a disservice, but let’s just say there are a number of reveals so shocking that when you figure them out, you will be absolutely floored. Watching the reaction of the twins to these revelations is part of what really makes you realize what a masterful filmmaker Villeneuve is. The results are quite brilliant and it’s hard to envision this was based on a play because there are so cinematic qualities to the way the film is told, divided into segments that are announced in large titles, usually specifying the location. The film is especially impressive for the way Villeneuve captures the various Middle East locations during the different time frames.
Both of the main actresses are absolutely astounding and they have similar features that make them utterly credible as mother and daughter. In fact, it sometimes may take a second to figure out which one you’re watching, which just makes the many temporal transitions that much smoother.
The music is used in a sparing but alluring way, from an enigmatic and seemingly esoteric opening scene of young boys having their heads shaven that introduces a beautiful recurring tune that sounds a bit like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. It’s a beautiful way to create a tone for the film even if it takes some time before it makes sense.
The truth is that we never really know what our parents went through before we were born, and it’s something that’s explored in such an effective manner with the semi-nonlinear structure. To put it quite plainly and bluntly, Incendies is one of the best films we’ve seen in some time, an incredibly powerful film that unfolds in such unique and unexpected ways, it’s not an experience easily forgotten or dismissed.
In a Better World
Directed by Susanne Bier; written by Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomasen, Markus Rygaard, William Johnk Nielsen, Elsebeth Steentoft
That’s not to say that any film by Susanne Bier is chopped liver, but her latest collaboration with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen doesn’t feel nearly as immediate as some of their previous offerings, though it may purposefully require a bit more thought for its message to really sink in.
The film opens in Africa where Mikael Persbrandt’s Anton is working as a doctor in a war-torn country, continually trying to save the women savaged and tortured by a ruthless warlord. Although this foreign locale continues Bier’s interest in stories set outside Denmark, we soon go to Europe where we meet two very different boys. Anton’s son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is constantly at the mercy of school bullies, while Christian (William Nielsen) is the new boy at school, having moved to Denmark after the death of his mother and still resentful of his often-absent father who leaves the boy alone for weeks at a time. Once they resolve their issues at school, the two boys witness Elias’ father being slapped around by a boorish man on the street. Already feeling like less of a man after splitting with his wife (Trine Dyrholm), Anton doesn’t strike back, trying to prove to the boys that not reacting against violence is better, but Christian has other ideas, and he plans an elaborate revenge plot and convinces Elias to go along with him.
It may not be immediately obvious what exactly Bier was trying to say with this film, if anything. One presumes “In a Better World” was meant to explore the subject of violence and how one reacts to it, whether standing up for one’s self is important or whether that leads to worse situations, though it’s really more of a character piece about very specific people in a specific situation. The first half hour of the film harks back to the Swedish vampire thriller “Let the Right One In” in its examination of young friendships formed out of mutual needs. It also might make one think that the biggest issue in Scandinavia right now is that of school bullying, or at least one can hope. That situation which sets up the film is then taken out of the confined area of a school into the real world, which is also when it gets far more relevant to what we’ve seen so much of on the news. Anyone who wonders what might drive someone to commit an act of terrorism or violence might find some answer within this morality tale.
The more dramatic dialogue sequences are crafted in Bier’s inimitable way of using extreme close-ups and tight editing to make slower scenes more interesting than they may have been otherwise. Once again, she’s also assembled an amazing cast, reuniting Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm following their appearance in Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” but it’s really the two young boys, both fine new talents, and Persbrandt who drive the story. William Nielsen is particularly strong as the angry young man whose relentless drive for revenge really makes him an interesting character. The focus on the men of the piece makes the film feel like more of a masculine experience than one might normally expect from a woman director, but that’s right in line with some of Bier’s previous films, including “Brothers.”
At least two of the subplots are pulled together when Anton comes face to face with the evil warlord who has caused so much death and destruction in the region, and must decide whether to save the man’s life or not. These scenes in Africa are the strongest best part of Bier’s film, though they’re few and far between, there to create a parallel between the two very different worlds. The primary story feels somewhat predictable only because so much is foreshadowed earlier, so you constantly feel like you know where it’s going.
At times, it almost feels like the film is Bier’s response to her Hollywood experience by trying to make a film that couldn’t possibly be remade with a story that’s complex and often too dark for its good. It also makes it harder sometimes to connect with the characters and their situation, which also may be due to the foreign culture and environment. Sure, we’ve all felt bullied or put into a situation where we have to decide whether to bite our tongue or strike back, but it feels like the film might have a stronger impact with fathers who have boys they feel the need to lead by example.
Even though the results are ultimately effective, it doesn’t really feel like one of Bier’s better films even if it’s still a very good film and better than so many other dramas that have tried to explore this type of subject matter.
Keep checking back for more reviews from the Sundance Film Festival which starts officially tonight!