Sunday, April 17, 2011

Susanne Bier: Knowing Me, Knowing You (In a Better World)

Many of our recent Academy Award winners for best foreign language film have been very questionable, as to the tastes of voters and the countries sending forth their rankest, most dishonest, hence Hollywoodized, fare to be nominated.

The Lives of Others was possibly the best, with a paranoid thriller twist on Cold War procedurals, though it devolved into typical provocation. The Counterfeiters was pretty standard Holocaust fare, lacking a visionary touch. And then Departures, a saccharine snooze fest and one of the weakest Japanese films to open stateside in some time. Finally, The Secret In Their Eyes, a well acted mystery with an insulting screenplay and stultifying progression.

Susanne Bier is unquestionably the most gifted out of this random group of directors, having made her mark with intimate, raw family dramas which attempt, like any pure film, to touch us with the unseen. After the Wedding, Brothers and Things We Lost in the Fire were all exceptional dramas.

Then, it is heartening to know that her newest film, In a Better World, is honestly one of the better recent Oscar winners for best foreign film, though it is arguably her most troubled film.

Crosscutting between Denmark and an unnamed African country, Bier films in a visual chorus of the hand held and the shimmering, acquainting us with two problematic adolescents and their very different yet similarly dysfunctional families. Elias and Christian(Markus Rygaard and William Johnik Nielsen) forge a curious bond, as their parents cope with their own problems, the every day lives of adults.

The beginning of the film is pure and feels just right, with a number of astounding moments. Halfway through we feel a strain, and in the end it drags to a conclusion bent on tying up all loose ends. It's a shame, because if it were'nt for the uneven screenplay, the combination of Bier's fiercely inquisitive direction and the brutally honest performances of her actors, this would have been a masterpiece.

Yet, the way she touches on evil, violence, family and masculinity feels perceptive and right, and the juxtaposition of Elias' dad (Martin Buch) tending patients on a refugee camp in Africa with the opaque sequences of life in Denmark, is rewarding in its conceptualization and realization. Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm are both brilliant as, respectively, Christian's widower father struggling with emotion to connect with his son, and Elias' distraught mother.

So, even though this is her least successful creation, it has finally earned Bier recognition through an Oscar win and simmers with the realization that we never can really know one another.

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