In Susanne Bier’s In a Better World (in national release on 21 April) – this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film – there’s a character called Big Man, a warlord terrorising local villagers near a Sudanese refugee camp. Big Man amuses himself making bets with his underlings as to the impending gender of the unborn children of local women. Impatient to collect, he has been speeding up the process with a machete, ripping children from their mothers’ wombs.
Fortunately, this takes place off-camera; we see only jerky hand-held glimpses of the gravely injured women being rushed into a makeshift outdoor hospital where Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Danish doctor with a gruff, Médecins Sans Frontières–type determination, treats them. Big Man’s special brand of savage lunacy brings to mind Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which the narrator Marlow counters an assertion that ivory trader Mr Kurtz’s “method is unsound”; Marlow’s famously chilling phrase declares that Kurtz in fact has “No method at all.”
For director Bier, the troubled north-east Africa of the film’s opening is not the main stage of her drama, but a place where her metaphors about violence and its causes play out at their most overt. The bulk of the action takes place in a small, clean, peaceful coastal town of Denmark. Anton’s son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), a shy, delicate boy known to the school bullies as “Rat Face”, befriends a fellow outsider, 12-year-old Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), a robust, impulsive boy, who has lost his mother to cancer and returned to Denmark after living in London. Elias’ parents are going through a trial separation (his father, Anton, is regularly away saving the world in Africa), and Christian and Elias are neck-and-neck in lostness. There’s a distant echo of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: children here live out ‘adult’ worlds so far beneath the radar of real adults that they might as well be on an island.
When Christian becomes defender and vigilante on behalf of Elias, and takes revenge on a bully, his anger is ferocious. “If you hit him, then he hits you, and it never ends,” admonishes Christian’s father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), driving him home in disgrace from school. “Not if you hit hard enough the first time,” snaps Christian. “You don’t know shit.” Yet the schoolyard drama is only a prelude to the more complex theme that is to come. In an adult version of a bullying fable, Anton is slapped in the face by an aggressive parent, Lars (Kim Bodnia), an event witnessed by the two boys. Anton has no answer to the boys’ demands for retribution, and when he tries to intellectualise Lars into submission, he makes matters worse. “I don’t think he thought he lost,” says Elias.
Bier is an insightful observer of the way males interact, particularly at moments of conflict, and of the inherent tensions of masculinity and domination. We buy the fable she constructs, we buy the implicit and actual interweaving of the Danish schoolyard and a war-ravaged Africa, because she elicits such fine performances from her cast, and is able to reduce a sprawling story to its most basic elements. In Denmark, Anton tries to appear brave in front of Elias and Christian. It doesn’t work; they’re not interested in his intellect. In Africa, Anton comes up against a dilemma when Big Man shows up in the camp needing urgent medical attention, his wounded leg putrid and maggot-infested. Anton faces the locals’ desperate pleas not to save the life of their tormentor.
What justice means at a moment like this might seem to Anton – emasculated father, bewildered husband, troubled doctor – not altogether indistinguishable from revenge. (The film’s Danish title, Hævnen, translates as ‘Revenge’, deeming its English title, which seems both earnest and twee, a little mystifying.) Yet Anton is no action hero, and Danish movies tend not to follow Die Hard arcs. “Why are you going to help Big Man?” asks a man whose babies were killed by the warlord. “Because I have to,” replies Anton. In a Better World draws no easy conclusions about western idealism, however. Big Man himself, a wolf, is only as strong as his pack.
The film falters a touch, dipping its toe into bathos and melodrama when it lingers too long in the camp. But mostly, its twists remain fresh and unexpected. “Sometimes it seems there’s a veil between you and death,” says Anton to Christian, back in Denmark, but what he’s really saying is how transparent the veil is every time he goes back to Africa. For the boys, in sleepy, sun-drenched Denmark, playing out their own gripping parable of innocence corrupted, such notions are a little abstract. Action is all that matters.
Incendies (in national release on 21 April), by French–Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, also alternates between a first-world country (Canada) and a trouble spot (the Middle East). Based on the play of the same name by Wajdi Mouawad (in English, titled Scorched), Villeneuve’s film manages to blend terrorist whodunit with deeply convoluted soap opera. The result, against the odds, is not a failure.
Lawyer Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard) reads to twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) the last will and testament of their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal). There’s a bitter undertone to the will, and it comes with a beautiful moment of emotional blackmail: if the twins don’t follow its conditions, their mother is to be buried naked, face down away from this terrible world, without a headstone or inscription. Jeanne’s task is to deliver an envelope to their father, a man whose existence they’ve known nothing about their entire lives. Simon, meanwhile, is to deliver an envelope to their brother. The twins are mystified. There’s never been a brother, to their knowledge.
“I feel so fucking peaceful,” says Simon, outside the lawyer’s office, kicking his car. He’s far more resistant than his sister to embarking on a treasure hunt for obscure clues into their mother’s past. (Only Jeanne goes to the Middle East at first. Circumstances will draw Simon in later.) In the final months of her life, Nawal had gone mute and strange after something traumatic – and initially unrevealed – had occurred at the local swimming pool. The film will bring its opaque mysteries full circle by using Simon and Jeanne’s dutiful attempts at fulfilling their mother’s wishes as a gradual extended flashback into Nawal’s life, all the way back to the birth of the twins and the history of the brother they didn’t know they had.
Imagine that the manager of the Globe Theatre had said to Shakespeare, regarding Macbeth, “It’s good, but do you think you could make it a little darker?” and you have an idea where Incendies is heading. In Villeneuve’s generic Middle East (the film was shot largely in Jordan but hints at ’70s war-riven Lebanon), just as in Bier’s generic Africa, savagery plays out with abandon. Nothing is spelled out for us: it takes a while to determine which characters are Muslim and which are Christian, and that surely is part of Villeneuve’s point. The interchangeability of hatred, the fluidity of shifting allegiances, the roots of revenge are thematically vast, but in Nawal’s journey from young lover to political assassin to victim of torture, they play out in sometimes excruciating miniature.
In one near-unbearable scene, Nawal boards a bus in the middle of the desert while hiding her crucifix. When the bus is stopped and then shot to pieces by members of a right-wing Christian militia, only Nawal and a couple of others survive. The soldiers begin pouring petrol over the bus. Nawal jumps free, holding out the crucifix and screaming, “I’m Christian! I’m Christian!” She wrenches a young girl from her mother, shouting, “My daughter!” The terrified girl runs back to her mother, giving the game away and sealing her fate.
In Minima Moralia (1951), Theodor Adorno wrote: “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” It seems an apt definition of compassion. In a Better World and Incendies suffer from moments of creakiness when message feels like it has usurped drama. For all their flaws, these two films are at their most interesting when they are investigating the haunted intersections of compassion and depravity.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription