“Dance is the hidden language of the soul.”
It almost feels like magic, when he finally starts to dance. He’d feinted at it moments earlier, offering a few tantalizing steps while weaving his way through a festive crowd of high school graduates. Sitting down to catch his breath, half-drunk and still wearing the suit he’d worn to his friend’s funeral hours before, he looks out over the water. He takes a breath, a pause.
And then, in a moment of pure, unexpected cinematic catharsis, he lets go—jumping over the bench, finding the music, and giving himself over entirely to the moment.
He cavorts and cartwheels, glides and gambols, alternating between a dancer’s rhythmic precision and a liberated soul’s spontaneity. It’s a perfectly imperfect dance—messy in all the right ways—that also feels, narratively, like both a surrender and an embrace.
What a life
What a night
What a beautiful, beautiful ride
In a lifetime of obsessive movie watching, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on a screen.
Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round is so full of life and texture—so filled with the fascinating complexities of being a human being, so attuned to all the different keys a life can play out in—that it’s not surprising to hear the film took nearly seven years to develop. Initially, Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm set out to make a film that celebrated the many joys of alcohol, and its deep prevalence in Danish culture, though they eventually realized the problematic nature of glorifying something that had ruined so many lives. On the other hand, they were strongly averse (refreshingly!) to any kind of moralizing, and had no interest in telling a story that was out to teach any lessons, or preach at its audience. And so they settled, instead, on a kind of middle ground that allowed Another Round to transcend its narrative and become, rather than a film about drinking, a film about life.
Four friends—Martin (Mikkelsen), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe) and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang)—all teachers at a local Danish high school, find themselves on the cusp of middle age, realizing to varying degrees that their lives have become boring and uninspired. Martin, in particular, seems untethered. A once brilliant and passionate teacher, he’s now distractedly fumbling through lectures on Churchill, leading students and parents to convene a meeting with him to discuss his lack of engagement. His home life seems similarly detached. “Do you find me boring?” he asks his wife. “Compared to what…when you were young or…?” she replies. When he responds yes, she sighs before saying, “You’re not the same Martin I first met.”
Gathered at an upscale restaurant for Nikolaj’s 40th birthday, the four friends begin discussing a Norwegian psychiatrist’s theory that humans are born with a blood alcohol deficiency of .05%, and that, by staying slightly drunk throughout the day, they can achieve a more optimal, peaceful, creative functioning. “One to two glasses of wine,” says Nikolaj, who teaches psychology, “and you should maintain it at that level.”
The following day, Martin decides to test the theory for himself, sneaking sips of vodka between classes in the hopes of regaining some kind of spark. Nikolaj, Peter, and Tommy decide to join in later that afternoon, and the group sets about formulating some basic rules for the experiment. “We’ll write a brilliant psychological essay about it,” Peter says, “so that it isn’t altogether foolishness.”
At first, things improve dramatically—their teaching, their relationships, their own experience of themselves in the world—and so they decide to increase their intake. Things escalate and eventually, predictably, begin to fall apart. The friends decide to abandon the experiment, but Tommy can’t stop drinking. Near the end of the film, he drunkenly sails his boat out into the ocean, and never returns. It’s his funeral that they’re attending near the end of the film, shortly before Martin’s cathartic dance.
Though Vinterberg spent the better half of a decade conceiving and shaping the film, when it finally came time to shoot Another Round, real life intervened in the worst possible way, reshaping its creation, and its very heart, entirely. Just four days into the shoot, Vinterberg’s 19-year-old daughter, Ida—who deeply loved the script and was set to star as one of Mikkelsen’s children in the film—was killed in a car accident in Belgium. Vinterberg’s whole world fell apart, and production halted immediately.
“At first it was almost impossible to continue, we were all shattered. The only way to continue was to make it for her,” he told the BBC last year. “That’s why my daughter’s name is at the end of the film. It gave me a reason to get up in the morning, I was doing something for her. It felt meaningful, even though everything seemed meaningless.”
Vinterberg’s deep grief seemingly channeled itself into the work, transmuting into an overarching sense of emotionally precise and graceful attention that runs throughout the film, even in its heaviest moments. Its varying tones, from broad comedic scenes to intensely emotional ones, already felt like “an untamable beast” to the director, but now took on an even more vulnerable, existential bent. And so, when the final scene hits—when Mikkelsen finally lets himself lose control completely—the effect is immediate and overwhelming. A man who’d been measuring out his life in coffee spoons throughout the film finally, physically, sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
“The final scene,” remarked Guillermo del Toro to Vinterberg and Mikkelsen, shortly after the film’s release, “is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen on film, ever. Not this year, not this decade—ever.”
Vinterberg knew that it was a gamble to end his film this way, with this big of a (literal) leap. But, if anything, this only seemed to make him all the more determined to pursue it. Mikkelsen—who trained at the Martha Graham School, and worked as a professional contemporary dancer for nearly a decade before becoming an actor—certainly had the technical skills to pull it off, but also had plenty of doubts about how the scene would work tonally within the context of the film. Through conversations with Vinterberg, though, he came to understand that the scene wasn’t about the dance, really, but about the character’s inner journey and his decision to finally give up control. And, after Vinterberg lost his daughter, the ending became all the more important to both of them; according to Mikkelsen, it was a scene she’d been greatly looking forward to.
In retrospect, it seems like a perfect ending, but there were so many ways it could have gone wrong—stylistically, tonally, structurally—and taken the entire film down with it. Part of the reason it all works out so well, though, is that it’s a culmination of all that came before it, a fully-earned catharsis subtly built towards from the earliest scenes. It’s only noticeable afterwards, as the credits start to roll, but the seeds of everything that come together in this final scene were sown from the start, and watered continually throughout. Even the opening of the film operates like an almost inverse echo of the finale: “What a Life,” the wildly catchy and propulsive Scarlet Pleasure song that soundtracks Mikkelsen’s dance, actually begins the film as well; an intimately eerie a capella version of the song’s melody is the first thing we hear on the soundtrack, before we see a single frame.
The final element that made the ending so deeply cathartic was, fittingly, entirely out of Vinterberg’s control. Initially set to premiere at Cannes in May 2020, Another Round instead premiered in September 2020 at a socially distanced and mostly virtual TIFF, before eventually being released into an America that still wasn’t going to the movies in mid-December, playing at a total of just seven theaters nationwide, and grossing less than a thousand dollars in America on opening weekend. (It did much better in Denmark, where theaters were mostly open throughout 2020.)
So basically, hardly anybody watched this scene in a movie theater with a large crowd. Instead, we watched this deeply joyous, communal moment of celebration on our couches or beds, on laptops or tablets or phones, where we were spending the vast majority of our days already, every day, day after day.
I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that we were all looking for catharsis by the end of 2020. Most of us had been living in near-total lockdown for nine months by that point—so much longer than we’d ever expected when it began, and so much longer still to go. We were collectively crawling out of our skin, or exhausted, or both—socially distanced and protectively numb in ways that we’d never even imagined having to be before. Trump had finally been defeated, but was still yelling at us every day on Twitter and trying to overturn the election, and there was a very real sense that, somehow, he wasn’t going anywhere (though it feels worth noting that, when he lost, there was a whole lot of dancing in the streets). A new year was days away, and there was still no end in sight, to anything. Most of us hadn’t been with a group of people, let alone danced with them, in nearly a year. Some of us maybe wondered if we ever would again.
And the thing is, Another Round doesn’t tip off its cathartic intentions in advance. So as much as I loved its first 110 minutes in all kinds of ways, there was no real way to anticipate how it was going to end. If anything, I was bracing myself for the exact opposite. This type of ending just didn’t seem remotely possible, until it was.
Suddenly, if only onscreen, people were dancing and drinking and hugging and singing, together. Vinterberg’s handheld cameras capture everything, the sheer feeling of it all, immersing us in the rowdy, joyful crowd as Mikkelsen weaves (and cartwheels!) his way through it. It felt like a whole new world, or perhaps a beautiful reminder of the one we’d left behind, the one we hoped would still be there waiting for us some day. A visceral reminder that life, always, goes on.
It’s almost impossible to imagine the emotions that were swirling around the set that day—or the journey that everyone, but especially Vinterberg, had made just to get to this point. Catharsis, though, is often a two-way street, experienced not just by the audience who watches, but by the artist who creates. Arguably, that’s the entire point. “We take some of the sting, and incomprehensibility and pain, and convert these intense emotions into a container outside of ourselves so it can be shared with others,” Girija Kaimal, an associate professor in the Creative Arts Therapies department at Drexel University, told Shondaland recently. “A big part of what any kind of artistic expression does is, when you’ve had a life experience that makes you feel really alone and isolated, the art sort of pulls you back and reminds you that you’re not the first person to have been through it.”
Vinterberg, who had just been through one of the worst experiences most of us can imagine, now found himself orchestrating a cathartic dance scene that, in a way, mirrored a version of his own journey back towards life. Mikkelsen, his close friend, was performing a dance scene for the first time in nearly 30 years, a scene that Vinterberg had conceived of specifically for him long ago, but which Mikkelsen was now performing in tribute to the director’s daughter. Vinterberg’s wife, Helene, who plays a small role in the film, was on set as well, providing additional inspiration and support. And in the end, everything, all of it, gets channeled into this moment, this scene.
“Watching you that day, dancing,” Vinterberg later told Mikkelsen, “was a one-to-one experience of how the film is. It was our beautiful catastrophe in private life. Ida was dead, and you were dancing, and everything made sense…And I think it’s the same feeling people get at the end of this movie…Your friend passed away. And yet, still, you’re weightless, and everything is possible.”
It ends with a leap. A freeze frame that suggests any number of possibilities. As the dance culminates, Martin takes a run off the dock and leaps into the air. The camera catches him at his highest point, the apex preceding an inevitable fall, and holds him there, arms outstretched, forever. The water awaits below, but in the final frame, he’s flying.
Try and remember when this moment first came into your life, and how dark and awful everything seemed at the time, and how ineffable it felt when he jumped over that bench and started to dance. For me, at least, it’s inextricable.
Don’t know where I’m in five
But I’m young and alive
Fuck what they are saying, what a life