There is a moment early in Another Round where Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) is the sole dry member of a boozy 40th birthday dinner party. Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), the birthday boy, exuberantly orders premium vodka, fine wines, and champagne, but Martin asks for a soda because he must drive home. His refusal appears to be a part of an ambient cloud of inertia which has settled over his life; his joyless marriage is played out by well-established rote and his unhappiness has brought him to the verge of incapability at work. A teacher of history, his students have confronted him to query his aimless, meandering and lacklustre lessons. The other men at the table – Nikolaj, Peter (Lars Ranthe) and Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) – all teach at the same school and have gotten wind of Martin’s troubles. He is eventually cajoled to have a drink after all and downs a glass of wine in one moment. His eyes burn with unshed tears after he does so. The defences of apathy have fallen instantly, leaving his beautiful face shining with vulnerability. He looks around the table with naked yearning.
This painful and alluring moment captures something at the heart of the film, in which drinking is never consistently one thing or the other – good or bad, funny or tragic – but is always transformative, thus always having power over those who wish to be different to how they are. These four men are all in middle age or on its precipice, and although Martin is the only one who has found himself in a despair so acute it has incited a critical tipping point, they are all mildly baffled at how they are spending life. Peter is an amiable and well-liked music teacher, but a perpetual bachelor who relies perhaps too heavily on the approval of his students. Tommy, a PE teacher, is alone too, with an elderly dog going incontinent and a former partner referred to with vague wistfulness. Nikolaj is the merriest of them all, objectively successful with a beautiful house and family, but even he is not quite at home in his life, bemoaning the tyranny of a house full of pissing, yelling toddlers and a stern wife.
After the birthday dinner the four decide to embark on an experiment together, based on research done by a psychiatrist Finn Skårderud which suggests (for the purposes of the film) that we are all born with 0.5% less alcohol in our blood than is appropriate, and that drinking small amounts constantly would lead us to be more creative and relaxed. And so the men will be drunk all the time, they decide – not falling down, sloppy drunk, but just a touch. Their anality, or shyness, or depression might then be altered subtly and lead them into a new way of living, one not rigid but open to life’s variance and divergent possibilities. For a while it appears that they have hit upon a miracle. Interest in their surroundings is reawakened, and relationships with their students are imbued with new meaning and pleasure. Tommy notices a little boy on the football team he coaches, small and runty in thick glasses, is being picked on by the other kids and singles him out for special attention and encouragement, affectionately nicknaming him Spex. An intolerably sweet moment ensues when Spex scores a goal and the whole team goes wild, Tommy and the other men ballistic with happiness. They are all better teachers: happier, more excited. Martin fucks his wife and her formerly jaded gaze has become curious and tentatively hopeful.
And then of course, dreadful things happen. But what is interesting is the strange tonality of the dreadful things; how they do not come after the larks with thudding inevitability to provide a conclusion or lesson. In fact they sit uncomfortably together, mixed inextricably, and this is what moved and impressed me about the film. It is almost impossible, in my experience, to come by a convincingly whole portrayal of what excessive drinking is or feels like. Perhaps this is because it is difficult to coherently capture what is necessarily incoherent by objective measures, from the outside of it. What I mean is this: that excessive drinking is not only fun but sometimes meaningful cannot be removed from the fact that it is also a portal to ruin. That excessive drinking has the ability to connect you with other people and establish a bond with them cannot be removed from the fact that it has the ability to create the most total and devastating loneliness imaginable. That excessive drinking can have you shed your worries and neurotic tics and live only in the moment as everyone claims to want to do, cannot be removed from the fact that excessive drinking can in fact end your life altogether – no more moments, immediate or anticipated, at all.
When we see the four of them wrestling and cavorting and dancing when drunk, it’s touching. It should be possible to be a tactile and joyful person at any age, a person who laughs at nonsense and is close to their friends and is excited by new feelings and thoughts – but it’s only alcohol that brings this openness out of them. The oppressive silence of masculinity, and what a burden it is to shoulder, is apparent. The chemical sway of booze is not separable from the more abstract, non-material permission it grants them to speak freely. Drinking eases the burden of repression, but then, when things go too far, it becomes a new secret of its own.
The secrecy is the worst part, how suddenly unconvincing the lie can become, how flimsy the performance is rendered once you approach the end. The movement from conviviality – shared excess, parties, singing – into the recesses of Tommy’s home, now littered with empty cans and bottles and unwashed dishes and uneaten meals for one, is harrowing. There is a frightening stench of loneliness that comes from it (How long has he lived this way? How long have they known or denied it?). The aloneness is what terrifies me about alcoholism, how unshareable a shame it can be.
That this film contains such powerful bleakness without using it to provide the sole precept (drinking might seem fun at first but can ultimately only be bad) is important. After we see what becomes of poor Tommy, after Martin scares his children with drunken injuries and is left by his wife, after all four are shaken by the school principal finding empty bottles around school, there is a remarkable final scene. The graduating students are celebrating and come by the restaurant the men are eating a sombre meal in. They, the teenagers, are fizzing exultantly about the end of their exams and the beginning of their lives. They are screaming and sloshing around bottles of wine and beer and shout for their teachers to come and join them. Peter is hoisted on his student’s shoulders and turns to his friends saying, “They carried me on their shoulders, did you see?” with the heartbreaking relief at being accepted one would expect of a little boy. Martin loosens into a dance, moving with ecstatic fluidity and taking pleasure with a vigorous determination which seems almost angry. The song that plays, “What A Life” by Scarlet Pleasure, would otherwise pass me by as dance-lite stuff you might hear in H&M, but its generic corniness is perfect here: “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/ Fuck what they are saying, what a life.”
The scene is inescapably poignant in light of what has happened to Tommy, but that’s how it should be. A New Yorker review wrote of this final scene: “Whether such hoopla counts as a happy ending or as a reckless lie—whether the kids should be granted their fun, or whether the next generation of inebriates is already in training for its own destruction—is open to debate.” But there is no debate, no contradiction in terms. One irony of drinking is that most of us begin it when we are teenagers, when we already naturally live in a state of perpetual immediacy. We didn’t need the intoxication to get us there. As adults, immediacy is precious and vanishingly rare, and drinking is one way to get to it. That it may also kill you is likewise true. There is a Raymond Carver line I thought of after I saw this film which goes: "Yes, there was a great evil pushing at the world, he thought, and it only needed a little slipway, a little opening." It seems to me that there is also a great joy pushing at the world, which only needs a little slipway, a little opening, and that alcohol is capable of doing both these jobs.