Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In a Better World (Haevnen)

There's an important scene in Susan Bier's academy award winning Danish film, Haevnen, where a father, Anton, is trying to teach a valuable lesson to two children--his son, Elias, and his son's friend, Christian--on the nature of vengeance and violence. Anton takes the kids to visit an angry brute of an auto-mechanic who had insulted him on a previous day. Never mind asking why the fight started in the first place; the reason is too stupid for me to bear repeating here. Anton asks the boorish fellow to apologize, and when that doesn't work, turns the other cheek as he gets slapped repeatedly in the face. Anton leaves satisfied (or at the very least, pretending to be)--he stayed cool and calm and showed his kids that violence was the futile recourse of the ignorant. But Elias and Christian aren't so sure; in their opinion, all Anton proved was that he's a pussy.

The kids may not have gotten the message, but the audience sure does. Since the auto-mechanic is a complete caricature of male brutishness and since there was no real reason for any argument to break out between the two men in the first place, we totally get that responding with violence would be useless.  We get the message every step of the way as Bier bludgeons us with her painfully uninteresting statements about revenge (which is what "haevnen" translates to), and this is unfortunate because this movie is nothing but message. My favorite summary of the film is in a blurb from the French magazine Cahiers de Cinema: "Attention! Film dissertation." Haevnen is a movie that's convinced of its own importance but is mainly didactic and dull. We're the children being lectured to.

To make things clear, there are two main stories involving revenge in Haevnen, and four specific instances where characters seek revenge. The central narrative involves the troubled Christian, and Elias, his wimpy protegĂ©. Both of them favor decisive action, first in response to school bullying, and then whilst seeking retribution from the mechanic. Obviously, they get themselves into a peck of trouble. On top of that, Bier manages to fit in a story that takes place somewhere in Africa. Where, exactly, doesn't matter, as long as the setting provides adequate reason for smiling black children to run freely behind a truck of benevolent European saviors. The connection is that Anton works for doctors without borders when he's not dealing with a shaky family situation back home. His own flawless moral integrity gets tested when a local warlord stops by to get treatment for his maggot infested leg.

These two stories are supposed to compliment each by complicating our notions of right and wrong. How can it be that violence is justified in one situation and not in another? Very easily, actually. Instead of working together to prove a coherent point, the two bits stand in stark contrast with each other and say next to nothing. Bier might have thought she had injected some much needed ambiguity into her feeble posturing, but all she does is give us examples of cases where revenge is good and cases where revenge is bad. For one, you won't find many audience members who are sympathetic to the cause of a hulking, milky-eyed African clown named Big Man who enjoys necrophilia and cutting the unborn babies out of pregnant woman's stomachs. So revenge is mostly bad, except when you're sitting in front of a guy who makes Mao look like Mother Theresa.

Also complicating things but adding little to the overall theme is a closer study of two families--Elias's and Christian's. Elias's parents have been splitting up, which might be part of the reason why he's having a tough time at school. Christian hates his father , Claus, ever since his mom died of cancer. He's convinced that Claus wanted her dead, and this resentment is what makes him gravitate towards violence. None of this really gives nuance to all the message-y parts of the movie, but at least these detours do more good than they do harm. They allow the film to concentrate on the individuals instead of on the broader implications of their moral decisions.

Haevnen is convincing enough to have won such accolades as Best Foreign Film at both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. It's possible that the unmerited attention it's received has made me resent it a little. Still, I don't think there's anything particularly gratifying, any way you look at it, in watching this story play out; as a whole it's a rather tedious slog, and intermittent sappiness doesn't do anything to help. Nevertheless, I've already given the movie the beating it deserves. In the interest of all that is redemptive and human and good, here is a list of the movie's strong points:

1. Cinematography--it's a handsome looking film. 2. Great performances all around, even from the child actors. Mikael Persbrandt as Anton and Willian Nielsen as Christian stand out. 3. Still less forced than it would have been if made, with the same intentions, over on the other side of the Atlantic. 4. A scene where Christian beats up Scofus, the school bully, is brutal yet satisfying, and actually poses some troublesome questions about violence. A rare instance where the line between good and bad actually gets a little fuzzy.



  1. Haevnen is a very impressive movie to me.
    I think it´s more sophisticated than you present it. Just to mention the "big man" issue: first Anton refuses to let him die (because he has to and wants to save any human)but then he shows some excessive emotion he will never show again when he throws big man out of the camp. Then big man gets killed by the crowd. - So his death rather seems to be the outcome of a sequence of unpredictable accidents that show the complexity of human interaction than a deliberate "lecture" to the audience.

  2. My problem there would be that I don't feel nearly as conflicted by Anton's actions as he does. Sure he may be somewhat pained by his momentary loss of reason, but Bier did so much to build up Big Man as absolute evil that I don't see much contradiction in Anton's behavior. In some ways the movie is impressive though, and I'm glad you enjoyed it, as many others evidently have.