Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round is bookended by Scarlet Pleasure’s “What A Life,” a synthy party number that co-opts the melody of the Italian resistance anthem “Bella Ciao” for its celebration-cum-lamentation of youthful hedonism. The first time we hear it, it’s playing over scenes of high schoolers binge-drinking and mischief-making, the wild atmosphere of the visuals accentuating the most carefree of its lyrics: “What a life, what a night / What a beautiful, beautiful ride / Don’t know where I’m in five, but I’m young and alive…”
By the film’s end, “What A Life” has taken on fresh significance, the darker suggestions lurking under its lyrics having been drawn out by the events that transpire between the needle-drops. The song has now been transformed into an ironic commentary on both the nostalgic obsessions of the movie’s middle-aged characters and the warped psychology of addiction: “…But it makes me terrified / To be on the other side / How long before I go insane?”
It’s a neat juxtapositional device and a microcosm of the duality that’s at the heart of Another Round. A compatriot of notorious agitator and fellow Danish auteur Lars von Trier (with whom he co-founded the Dogme 95 movement), Vinterberg often uses his films to pose provocative social questions. Here, his focus is on alcohol — namely, whether it has perhaps been unfairly over-problematized.
Another Round follows four high school teachers as they test out a theory proposed by Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who once suggested that all humans are born with a blood alcohol concentration 0.05% too low. The idea is that maintaining a steady level of alcohol in your system (about two glasses of wine’s worth) brings you up to optimum performance, thereby maximizing your personal and professional happiness. As Magnus Millang’s character Nikolaj puts it in the film, not only are you more “relaxed” and “poised” when you’ve had a few, but you forget your fear, and life takes on a “musical” quality instead.
Nikolaj and his buddies – Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), and Peter (Lars Ranthe) – all have their own reasons for being attracted to Skårderud’s theory. For PE teacher Tommy and choirmaster Peter, the bachelor life has begun to lose some of its glamour in middle age. Psychology teacher Nikolaj is motivated by (somewhat pseudo-) intellectual curiosity, while Martin, a former PhD candidate and jazz ballet dancer, is a dreary shadow of his former self, as dull in the classroom as he is in his tired marriage.
Martin’s case unites the binary positions suggested by the film’s polarizing premise: he has the most to gain and the most to lose from the experiment, and so it’s Mikkelsen’s character who forms the logical centerpoint of Vinterberg’s narrative. Playing a teetotaller in the film’s early scenes, he drains himself of all his natural star-making charisma, tapping in to the natural stoniness of his features to suggest a genuine inner deadness. Once the drinks start flowing, things brighten up — literally: the lighting takes on a cheerier glow — and Mikkelsen channels Dead Poets Society in some riotous off-syllabus lessons about the alcoholic tendencies of cultural and political titans like Hemingway and Churchill.
On the other end of the spectrum is Nikolaj, played with a wry sense of farcicality by sleeper star Millang. As is often the case, the friends’ inevitably doomed scheme is first suggested and spearheaded by the member who has the least to worry about. Happily married and raising a young family, Nikolaj has the luxury of not needing the experiment – he’s really just drawn to Skårderud’s ideas by a teenager’s knee-jerk attraction to the subversive. The late director Agnès Varda’s description of the adulterous protagonist of her film Le Bonheur as a man who thinks he can “add happiness to happiness” applies here: Nikolaj is fundamentally just greedy.
That greed is infectious: once the men start seeing the benefits of keeping a small buzz going, they unsurprisingly want more, and so the 0.05% blood alcohol limit is doubled and then some. Inevitably, things begin to turn sour, but the predictability of some events isn’t necessarily a problem for the film, because it underscores Vinterberg’s point: that most of the time, we only really hear one side of the alcohol debate.
It’s a thrillingly original premise, and before the novelty wears off, Another Round does fizz with imaginative promise. It’s subversively fascinating, for example, to see moments usually coded as pitiful hallmarks of addiction – like Martin sneaking sips of vodka in between classes – receive counter-intuitively positive framing here.
Another scene, a rapturous, impromptu ballet solo performed on the harbor, borders on transcendental, both because of how sensationally impromptu it is and because of its sheer spectacle. Stylistically, it’s a bolt from the blue: like the choreography, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography suddenly transfigures into that of a Sia music video, the camera soaring and diving around the dancer where it had previously mimicked the unsteady footing and lethargy of the movie’s drinkers.
The problem with Another Round is that, narratively, nothing in the film upends our expectations anywhere near as radically. It never succeeds in its implicit goal of changing our minds: the fair hearing that Vinterberg insists on giving alcohol only delivers the same verdict. What positives the men do experience as a result of their drinking are vastly, profoundly outweighed by the negatives, and some are even flagrantly contrived — how does a soccer coach’s drinking, for example, transform the quiet kid at practice into a star scorer?
Ironically, if Vinterberg wasn’t so grimly persistent about insisting that alcohol can do as much good as it can bad, there’s a chance the film could deliver a profound answer to its radical question. As it is, though, Another Round’s stubbornness undermines any nuance it might have unearthed, and its final scenes, in particular, feel oblivious to their own sinister implications, given what we know about the cyclical nature of addiction. Intended as a sparkling toast to life, Another Round’s ominous notes can’t help but override its sweeter moments, leaving a bitter, cautionary taste in your mouth.