Film Comment Selects: Nils Malmros
Six films by Nils Malmros will screen—with Malmros appearing in person—February 27 through March 1 as part of Film Comment Selects at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Pain of Love
It’s surprising, given Nils Malmros’s deep, abiding interest in youthful rites of passage, that it took the Danish filmmaker until 1992 to structure a movie around an exam. “All right, Kirsten,” a high-school psychology teacher prompts his flighty, beautiful student during a pivotal examination scene in Pain of Love, the director’s sixth film: “Piaget’s theory of development. It has to do with some stages and phases.” She rattles off the stages in question, direct from her notes. “Tell us more,” he presses her, “about the second stage.” She can’t. “It’s all in the book,” she answers over-confidently. “The important thing is that we know where to find it.”
That young people often lack a vocabulary with which to talk about childhood and youth is one of the key assumptions behind Malmros’s early films, all of which deal with adolescent life in the bustling, affluent coastal city of Aarhus, Denmark. To be young, in these movies, is to be a mystery to others and a source of nearly equal bafflement to oneself. Growth spurts, tongue-tied early attempts at self-expression, random social demotions and promotions, acts of cruelty dealt out and received, unexpected surges of lust, pangs of unreciprocated romantic feeling and nervous abdications of romantic commitment: the experiences with which Malmros deals are, most often, the sorts of milestones a psychologist would assign to an early “stage or phase” in a theory of development.
Indeed, one of the most attractive—and, ultimately, deceptive—aspects of Malmros’s films is their apparent neutrality, their surgical steadiness of hand. Watching them can feel like recalling a particularly turbulent passage in your life from the lucid and serene remove of a later, mellower stage. By Malmros’s fifth feature Beauty and the Beast (83), however, a second, half-hidden voice was starting to speak up from under that paternal tone. This voice, more anxious and less assured than the one under which it’s been hiding, seethes quietly through Malmros’s films about adolescence. Cool-tempered, exquisite reminiscences of youth and its discontents, these movies are also, you start to feel, unsettlingly pained dispatches from middle age.
Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast is an atypical Malmros film: the only one of his first four mature features to take on the perspective of a grown man rather than that of one or more children. It’s a discomfiting, awkwardly revealing movie, its structure having seemingly been dictated by Malmros’s intense need to relieve himself of a psychological load. The “beauty” of the movie’s title is a 16-year-old woman living alone with her father, a writer. (Her mother, pregnant with the writer’s second child, is confined to a remote hospital bed for reasons never made clear.) There’s a strong, at times tense intimacy between Mette and her father: each comments frankly on the other’s physical appearance; he engages in casual relationship talk with her best friend; she walks around the house half-naked. When he looks at her, it’s with a mixture of fatherly protectiveness and visible, if unacknowledged, desire. Soon, she starts going out with a cocky, smooth-talking male model, and the father becomes obsessed—to the point of intruding on her rendezvous and eavesdropping on her calls—with preserving her virginity.
Much of Beauty and the Beast takes place in the father-daughter’s two-story house in suburban Aarhus, where the action plays out like a cramped, fitful dance: the two characters move up and down the stairs, sidle past each other in the hall, open doors on one another, listen in on one another’s speech through the walls. In what had already by then become one of his trademark devices, Malmros arranges his characters’ expressions of psychological unrest into compositions of impeccable order and eerie calm, like a personal essayist confessing some lurid youthful transgression in incongruously stately, measured prose.
That comparison is not accidental. Nearly all of Malmros’s films are derived from events in the director’s own life or the lives of people close to him. In many cases, including that of Beauty and the Beast, the forms of his finished films give the impression that the process of making them was something like therapy, a pretext for Malmros to confront some unacknowledged demon—in this case, his confused feelings for Line Arlien-Søborg, the young girl for whom he wrote the part of Mette after she appeared in his previous film, Tree of Knowledge (81)—or purge himself of a corrosive memory. It’s curious how Malmros’s intense confessional bent co-exists with his particular type of universalism: his way of treating Life in general as a more or less fixed series of stages and developments, each with its own attendant pleasures, dangers and fears.
Aarhus at Night
Malmros was born in Aarhus on October 5, 1944, when Denmark was under Nazi occupation. His father was a famous neurosurgeon, and Malmros grew up intending to practice the family trade. At 17, when he was still living at home in Aarhus and studying medicine, he saw François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and decided, with sudden resolve, to take up filmmaking. His first feature, A Strange Love (68), was shot on a 16mm camera borrowed from his father’s neurosurgical ward; what reviews it received were harsh dismissals. Malmros, who never attended film school (he funded his first two features by serving as a security guard on the hospital’s night ward), taught himself movie grammar in the field, and in A Strange Love, he later confessed, he’d failed to find a tone. “I felt I had to make a film that was deep and poetical,” he suggested in a recent interview. “I was not deep and I was not poetical, so the result was fake.”
In the three great features Malmros made between 1973 and 1981, you can see the director steeling himself against reaching for any grand poetic effects or falling into any self-conscious affectations of style. These are movies in which each scene moves at its own pace and within its own custom-set limits, sometimes blossoming into an epiphany or erupting into a crisis, but more often shuffling along inconclusively right up to an arbitrary end. (The cuts in Malmros’s early movies are often jarringly curt, as if to suggest that the scene could have gone on for much longer, but had to end somewhere.) The films Malmros made at this stage in his career are marked by a steady input of humdrum details: the distinctions in size and opulence between different children’s houses; the personality of a stuffy (but essentially benign) composition teacher in contrast to that of a wizened, half-deaf exam administrator; the awkward, stop-start rhythm of an elementary-school waltz class or a middle-school dance; the way the windows of a young boy’s childhood home glow at him invitingly; the way that those of a campground social center glow threateningly at a put-upon teenage girl.
Lars Ole, 5C
The title character of Lars Ole, 5C (73) recurs under an altered name in the central role of Boys (77), and under a third variation in an important corner of the magisterial Tree of Knowledge (81), in which there’s no obvious central character. The first of those three movies is a ragged, black-and-white love story with a familiar setup: Lars pines for the adorable brunette Inger; his best friend John pines for the timid, freckled Hanse; Hanse pines over Lars. What’s immediately striking about Lars Ole, 5C is the total lack of condescension with which Malmros, who was 29 at the time of the movie’s release, films the nonprofessional middle-schoolers that comprise nearly all of the cast. When Lars gets to dance for a fleeting second with Inger during a polka in the movie’s waning minutes, the film lights up with him. It’s a genuine, if pointedly foreshortened, moment of triumph.
These early Malmros’s films are so casually—one might say invisibly—structured that they can seem as if they’re being made up as they go. Boys, with its clear three-age, three-act plot, is the most schematic of the three. In a cut 30 minutes into the film, young Ole—the movie’s hero—transforms from a timid 8-year-old into a handsome, immaculately groomed teen. Thirty minutes and one dashed relationship later, we find him again, this time as a cockily confident, sexually hungry young man pursuing a forbidden liaison at a girl’s nursing school dormitory.
It’s in his slightly overzealous drawing of links between these episodes that Malmros risks letting the movie devolve into a developmental study. The youth at the center of Boys discovers sex textbook-style, stage by stage: witness the marked correspondence between how 8-year-old Ole lingers outside his family’s house on a warm summer night, how his teenage self hovers below his ex-girlfriend’s window, and how, a few years later, we see him unsteadily climb past the lit windows of a nurses’ dormitory. When it arrives, the movie’s epilogue—a scene of Ole getting foiled from engaging in some pre-pubescent erotic horseplay with a boy his age—feels a little too emphatic, a punch line that draws attention to itself.
Where Boys improves thrillingly on Lars Ole, 5C is in the presence it gives its female characters. The women Ole pursues arguably make more of an impression than he does: Marianne, his first love, with her precociously wise, reflective temper and her air of shuffling between conflicting romantic desires; then Marethe, the nurse who directs him playfully through their curtailed one-night stand. Malmros’s style is, on the whole, too decorous and modest to handle any full-blooded sex (the love in his early movies is always unrequited), but he’s an expert at staging the shifty, dancelike navigations that lead up to a sexual encounter. The question Marethe asks Ole after he’s persuaded her to lay down next to him on her bed—“what now?”—is Malmros’s cue to disrupt the couple’s privacy; it’s as if she’s beckoning the movie down a path it’s not equipped to follow.
And it’s the women who take pride of place in Malmros’s masterpiece, Tree of Knowledge: a series of exquisitely staged, expansive vignettes that accumulate with quietly shattering force. (The movie, which takes place between 1953 and 1955, was shot over two years, during which time most of its cast either entered puberty or left it.) If there’s a figure around whom the movie revolves, it’s Elin (Eva Gram Schjoldager), a shy Jewish girl whose friends reject her after she grows visibly close to, then rebuffs the advances of, the handsome Helge (Marin Lysholm Jepsen). The film, however, often re-centers around the friends themselves—the group’s pretty, secretly insecure ringleader Anne-Mette (Line Arlien-Søborg) and her quieter, more pensive best friend Elsebeth (Marian Wendelbo)—or the boys in their orbit. Niels Ole (Jan Johansen) is in this second camp, pining familiarly over an older girl who returned his affections for a short, unsatisfying spell. It’s mesmerizing to watch Malmros guide some of the boys slowly out of the character types into which he’s written them: Willy (Brian Theibel), the class clown who, over the course of the film, takes on his own sort of poignant loneliness; or Gert (Anders Ørgaard), the heavyset boy who hovers longingly at the edges of the action and evolves into one of its few sources of reliable wisdom.
Such sympathy for the ways people navigate puberty is rare. There’s a surreal tinge to the dance scenes in Tree of Knowledge, with their frequent shots of tall, physically developed young women swaying to the beat of Fifties rock ’n’ roll with diminutive, prepubescent boys. But the way the characters on the edges of the action in these scenes engage with those in the center—glancing at them longingly, evasively, timidly—isn’t far from the way, say, the lonely, stoic heroes of many John Ford films shuffle around on the thresholds of those movies’ saloons or dancehalls, or the way the disappointed, middle-aged ex-lovers in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum gaze furtively back and forth at one another across the unbridgeable space of a bar’s makeshift dance floor. Standing in the glare of an atrium during their school’s Christmas party and watching their friends and rivals drift in pairs around the darkened, curtained-off private room one door away, these kids are, the movie suggests, getting a taste of adulthood.
Tree of Knowledge
The film’s title suggests that they’re getting a taste of something else: the “knowledge of good and evil” that will replace—or is taking—their innocence. But the process of acquiring experience, in the movie’s final picture, is more benign than that: a stream of practical challenges, unforeseen frustrations and new social demands. What do middle-schoolers talk about? How do they register the maturing of their friends’ bodies, and adapt to the changes in their own? How do they navigate space? How do they express or repress their desires? Here, as in the rest of his best early work, Malmros isn't so much describing adolescence as channeling its particular confusions through a cooler, decidedly adult voice.
Sorrow and Joy
Near the end of Sorrow and Joy (13), Malmros’s painfully intimate, emotionally forthcoming latest film, Signe asks her husband, middle-aged filmmaker Johannes, why he’s never made a movie about “learning to love”: “You made films about being hopelessly in love in intermediate school, and about hopeless love in high school—and a film about starting to make films and being hopelessly in love.” (She’s referring, in the last instance, to Aarhus at Night, Malmros’s 1989 comedy set during the shooting of a movie that bears a striking resemblance to Boys.) “You need to make the film about reaching adulthood,” Signe tells him. They’re just starting the day, she perched on the side of their bed in a robe, he still ensconced under the covers: a moment touched by a kind of gentle, serene eroticism rare in Malmros’s early movies. “I can’t make that film,” Johannes replies. “You know that.”
“That film” would, Johannes knows, have to tell the story of a tragedy with which, after 26 years, he’s still struggling to come to terms. Around the time of the release of Tree of Knowledge, Malmros and Marianne Tromholt, his girlfriend of several years, got married. The early months of the couple’s marriage were strained. Decades earlier, after suffering a mental breakdown in her teens, Marianne had been diagnosed as manic-depressive, and now, with a change of medication, she had started to relapse. (It must be said that a contributing factor was jealousy: at the time, Malmros was filming Beauty and the Beast, and Marianne quickly picked up on its thinly veiled suggestions of Malmros’s attraction to his beautiful teenage star.) In January 1984, Marianne was briefly hospitalized for mental illness. The next month, during an afternoon at home, she suffered a severe psychotic episode and killed the couple’s 9-month-old daughter.
After the tragedy, Malmros’s output slowed down markedly. His next film after Aarhus by Night was Pain of Love (92), a fiction inspired by his wife’s early life—specifically, the initial struggle with suicidal depression that led to her first institutionalization as a college-aged young woman. It took a full decade for Malmros to make another indirect reflection on his recent, traumatic past. Facing the Truth (02), which revolves around a character named and modeled after Malmros’s neurosurgeon father, proceeds mostly in flashback after the elderly man is embroiled in a medical ethics scandal over his choice 40 years ago to use a toxic X-ray substance on patients in life-or-death need. Both movies centrally involve male characters who fail to take care of the lives with which they’ve been entrusted, partly out of pride and partly out of sheer helplessness; their hands, in both cases, are eventually tied. (Kirsten’s partner in Pain of Love, her former high-school composition teacher, intellectually condescends to her in much the same way that Johannes condescends to Signe in Sorrow and Joy.)
Facing the Truth
The dramatic structures of Pain of Love and Facing the Truth are less thrillingly porous and open than those of Malmros’s early films. Where Boys and Tree of Knowledge luxuriate in individual scenes well past the point of dramatic necessity, these later works are briskly paced character studies with well-defined narrative arcs. Pain of Love proceeds in chronological sequence and ends, like Beauty and the Beast, with a moment that’s both decisive and inconclusive. Facing the Truth, like Sorrow and Joy, is a kind of emotional whodunit, each flashback giving a new or further clue to the source of the aging doctor’s guilt.
In their own way, these later films of Malmros manage to generate more tension than any of his previous movies (the extended surgery setpieces in Facing the Truth, the twinned exam scenes in Pain of Love). They both lavish space on their protagonists’ childhoods, but there was clearly something liberating for Malmros about working with mostly adult performers. In Pain of Love especially, he’s enraptured by the dramatic potential of grown-up conversation, its casually dropped digs, dancelike maneuverings, and veiled affronts.
The films’ shared visual style is another matter. Malmros briefly practiced as a surgeon during the period from which these films date, and it’s at this point in his career that his formal precision and simplicity risked turning into clinical blandness. There’s an almost stuffy professionalism to Pain of Love and Facing the Truth wholly absent from the self-taught director’s earlier films—a feature of these movies that’s oddly out of step with their strain of personal urgency, even desperation. (The character meant to stand in for Malmros in Facing The Truth is almost completely unindividuated, and the scenes that have him listening to his father’s story make dramatic sense only if you take them for what they are: conversations in which the filmmaker himself takes the listening role.) It’s precisely because these movies include many of Malmros’s most acute treatments of male-female relationships (in the case of Pain of Love) and some of his most bracing straight doses of procedural detail (in Facing the Truth) that their limitations—their stodgier mise en scène, their intrusive musical scores, and their somewhat diminished sense of place—frustrate as much as they do.
Sorrow and Joy
Midway through Sorrow and Joy, Johannes warns his wife Signe not to take his films too literally; if they represent his own feelings, he tells her a bit condescendingly, it’s only in a “sublimated” form. But what makes Sorrow and Joy such a riveting, difficult film is precisely how little sublimation seems to have taken place in its making. The film Johannes is shooting is unambiguously Beauty and the Beast, just as the character’s previous film is clearly Tree of Knowledge. (Reviving a device he’d used decades before in Aarhus by Night, Malmros shows his alter-ego filming shot-for-shot recreations of both those movies, with look-alike actors chosen to replace the films’ original casts.)
Indeed, the events recounted in Sorrow and Joy follow the course of Malmros’s life in nearly every particular: his wife’s medical history; her mother’s absent-minded failure to keep an eye on her the day of the tragedy; her generous sentence to recuperative psychiatric care; the striking choice of the parents of her elementary-school pupils to invite her back to teach after her release; his ill-timed trip to Berlin shortly after the incident to promote Beauty and the Beast with that film’s young star. Like most savvy memoirists, Malmros takes great pains in Sorrow and Joy to turn himself into a character. And like many memoirists, he attacks that character’s weaknesses with ferocious precision: sometimes caring and sensitive, Johannes is also, at various points, tactless, proud, chiding, paternalistic, superior, domineering, and cruel. (Witness his derogatory remarks on seeing Signe’s apartment for the first time, or the way he quizzes her professorially on the book she brings to one of their first dates.)
There’s perhaps too little in Sorrow and Joy of the recklessness that enlivens many such memoirs—if only because Malmros is deeply concerned here with proving that the story he’s telling is one he has a right to tell. Marianne, as he has maintained in several interviews, sat him down in 2012 and gave him permission to film their story, but there’s something disconcerting about the way Malmros writes that speech conscientiously into the film, like a protective clause in a contract. The essential indiscretion of the memoir enterprise, one senses, doesn’t sit well with him; watching the film, you sometimes wish he wasn’t at such pains to tell his own story with such impeccable decorum and tact.
Pain of Love
For all the clarity of its emotional observations and all the luminous poise with which it’s shot, Sorrow and Joy is at its most effective whenever Malmros sets forces moving inside the film that risk shattering its composure. There are moments in the movie—indiscreet confessions or chilling outbursts of grief—that seem to erupt irrepressibly out of it: Signe’s almost unbearably precise account of what took place during her psychosis; a queasy moment on the set of Beauty and the Beast during which Johannes pressures his reluctant teenage actress Iben (Maja Dybboe) to disrobe for a key scene; a heartbreaking image late in the film of Johannes watching his daughter play for the last time. The film’s decorum, in moments like these, transforms into a kind of steely, iron resolve.
To Signe, “a film about reaching adulthood” would be, almost by definition, a film “about learning to love.” As they age, the heroes of Malmros’s later movies nearly always find that they have to divest themselves of the romantic appeal of unrequited love. Johannes’s attempts to suppress his evident attraction to Iben, Kirsten’s choice in Pain of Love to keep the baby with which she has been left after a painfully unsatisfying one-night stand, Rodger Malmros’s halfhearted concession to marry the levelheaded, easygoing girlfriend he doesn’t love in Facing the Truth—it’s a fundamental assumption of these movies that growing up means lowering one’s romantic expectations, or (in the case of Sorrow and Joy) coping with the need to share someone else’s pain.
If Malmros’s later movies sometimes feel excessively careful and restrained, it’s because they match their characters’ romantic compromises with formal compromises of their own: their stately, slightly stiff compositions; their focused, single-protagonist narratives; their hand-me-down flashback structures. There’s a sense in which Malmros’s earlier movies spoke in wiser, more developed voices than his films about adulthood. Less attuned to the difficulties and rewards of cohabitation, they were more attentive to the way a single action can branch out along unexpected trajectories and into unforeseen effects, more sensitive to the psychological motives of even their most distasteful characters, and more interested, oddly, in the dynamics of sexual power between people. One of the constants in Malmros’s body of work has been his view of life as a series of stages, and taken together, his movies come off as proof that, in the movement from one stage to the next, there’s a loss for every gain.