Another Round and the adolescence of adulthood: Why the Mads Mikkelsen film is unnerving to confront
By finishing on a high, Another Round becomes a rare film that injects the collectivism of adulthood with the individualism of intoxication.
The Viewfinder is a fortnightly column by writer and critic Rahul Desai, that looks at films through a personal lens.
I have a strange relationship with alcohol. I don’t like binge-drinking. My “capacity” is fairly average. My system rejects excesses faster than most. I merely drink to offset a cripplingly concave personality. Most days, I tend to be a spectacular bore. I have a difficult time making conversation, asking, expressing and generally looking interested in the vicinity of others. I lack confidence. I descend into intellectual inertia. Awkward silence is my middle name. So I drink to be braver. I drink to say the things I want to say, and feel the emotions I’m supposed to feel. I don’t drink to become a raging extrovert. I don’t drink when it’s “time to drink.” I just drink enough to be a better — not happier, not sadder, not cooler, not madder — version of who I am. Alcohol is not an escape from dejection so much as an enabler of adequacy.
On that note, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round felt like an unnerving film to confront. It features a listless protagonist (Mads Mikkelsen) who “uses” alcohol for similar reasons. Martin, a high-school history teacher, is in a fatal funk. His marriage is on autopilot, his students are drifting, even his kids think he’s dull and uptight. While most males his age pursue extramarital thrills to feel alive, Martin instead embarks on something of a social experiment with three colleagues. The men decide to test a scientific theory that propagates a precise blood-alcohol content (BAC) level of 0.05 to feel more “relaxed and creative”. They drink just enough at work, at home, in the day, before 8 pm, to maintain this level.
At first, it’s a wild success. Martin loosens up like a Gaul on magic potion — his lectures sparkle with wit and innovation, he modifies himself into a passionate partner and attentive parent, his gait radiates cautious swagger. At this point, Another Round became the personal validation I needed. Alcohol is destigmatised and, contrary to type, celebrated for its positive influence. From years of trial and (considerable) error, I’ve come to learn that two glasses is that precise level for me: a delicately suspended state between sobriety and spiritedness. Any more and the world starts spinning; any less and righteousness starts winning. But the prospect of “healthy drinking” is a culturally provocative one. The premise — of non-young humans not drinking to lose themselves but to rediscover themselves — defies the ethical appropriation of alcohol. It is also too good to be true.
To stay satisfied in that precarious corridor of boundlessness is in itself a paradoxical notion: it implies resistance to the core essence of nothing being impossible. It’s not long before Martin and his friends extend their newfound nerve to their own rules of drinking. The fallout of an all-night session results in the suspension of their experiment. A domestic crisis emerges. It’s natural to assume that when one of the four men continues this tipsy voyage towards the horizon of addiction, Another Round might have morphed into a cautionary tale about alcoholism. After all, it always starts with people who think they can customise the loss of control. The tonal shift in the film certainly came as a rude shock to me. The bleaker it got, the more I doubted myself: Am I doing it wrong? What about the nights I cross the two-drink barrier? Does alcohol improve my social skills or just fleetingly elevate my perception of them?
The climax of Another Round has widely been considered the most invigorating movie moment of 2020. It’s a viscerally lithe scene: Martin dances like there’s no tomorrow. Mads Mikkelsen, an ex-gymnast himself, lights up the screen with a visible accumulation of rhythm, instantly immortalising Scarlet Pleasure’s ‘What A Life’. But scratch beyond the surface, and the scene transcends its stylish frenzy to reveal a subversive soul. Martin is suspended between the sobriety of an end (the tragedy of a fallen comrade) and the spiritedness of a beginning (he joins a graduation party on the street). He’s drunk, yes, but on the hope of what lies beyond. The middle-aged man devours his booze against the backdrop of youth.
The point being: By finishing on a high, Another Round becomes a rare film that injects the collectivism of adulthood with the individualism of intoxication. Stimulation means different things to different people, but it’s the virtuous scrutiny of those watching that defines the guilt felt by the ingestor. Martin realises the irony of being judged for essentially wanting to repair his relationship with his environment. He initially drank to be better for others, but his last-gasp dance is a way of reclaiming the privacy of liberation. It felt oddly soothing to see a story acknowledge that the act of drinking itself is secondary to the identity of those who do it. Or maybe that’s just my reading of a world all too familiar.
The reason I obsessively regulate my buzz perhaps has more to do with where I come from. I grew up in a household that prioritised alcohol over water. My parents postponed the proverbial starting of a family to be the life of the party. The world was at their jiving feet. They sang and danced and loved a good night. At some stage, the music stopped, the future arrived, the friends moved on — but the drinking continued. They refused to conform to societal structure, but the lens of adulthood had changed: The mere presence of an offspring altered the moral significance of their bottle. The glasses lost their rose-tinted promise. The fun couple with a zest for living became the irresponsible caretakers with a taste for noise. Consequently, every other night became an attempt to relive the thrilling dignity of that threshold, to retrieve the infiniteness of that elusive blood-spirit concentration. Soon, their entire life had hijacked the aura of a social experiment.
It became known as alcoholism, but to me it looked like a persistent excavation of time. Some nights, the highs found a voice. Some mornings, the lows muffled the shame. The labels were distributed according to domestic status. The bread-earner was diagnosed with a “drinking problem” because it affected his ability to provide. The hawk-like surveillance on him ensured that I didn’t remember his drinking so much as the deception — the illicit daytime swigs, the hiding spots, the lies — that accompanied it. But I wanted to believe that, like Martin, maybe he was doing it to restore his passion for living and, by extension, his capacity to love us. Maybe it was selfless. The homemaker wasn’t subjected to such scrutiny. I never thought she had the same problem, because her days revolved around protecting me from my memories of her numbing nights. Everybody estimated that she was a functional drinker while he was not. Yet, it was lost upon nobody that their companionship was all dressed up with nowhere to go. When they got drunk, it felt rooted in the hope of what lay behind. The middle-aged couple devoured booze against the backdrop of their own youth.
That I now use alcohol to unlock the shackles of a personality handicapped by the heritage of alcoholism is a tragicomedy of Freudian proportions. I often worry that, the second I pick up a third glass, the modest medicine might be viewed as a toxic drug. I think of how my parents had started to do Martin’s dance. Just before he breaks out his best moves, he sits on a bench facing the ocean — straddling the ledge between the devils behind and the deep sea beyond. Then he explodes. My parents never left that bench; they never reached Martin’s space of careless abandon. Maybe that’s why, at 35, my problems aren’t adult-worthy by nature: I’m unmarried, I share an apartment with my mother, I refuse to own a car, I’m unable to afford a house. Maybe that’s why I’ve postponed the future. It’s the only way I can keep dreaming of it. It’s the only way I can fix the family heirloom. It’s the only way I can keep drinking another round of adolescence.
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