When you see a Susanne Bier film, you might not know what to expect in subject matter, but you always know you’re in safe hands. A SECOND CHANCE focuses on the seemingly idyllic life of cop Andreas (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his lovely wife and baby, contrasting this with low-life junkie and criminal Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, best known as Sarah Lund’s last partner in The Killing, and a frequent Bier collaborator), who dominates his own girlfriend, Sanne and their baby, in their squalid apartment. When Andreas’ own child suddenly dies, seemingly from cot death, he seizes the opportunity to do something outrageously immoral, which will give a second chance to the deprived baby and his own family. Can something so obviously wrong ever be right? Bier claims this film is personal but not autobiographical, and it comes from her ongoing creative collaboration with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen. But she says it was also influenced by stories like that of Baby P, and the tale of a stolen baby from long ago in her own childhood. She’s wanted to work with Coster-Waldau for a while, focusing on his likeable, endearing qualities as Andreas, “until you look into his eyes and you aren’t so sure.” And Bier plucked model May Andersen to play Sanne after meeting her at a party, giving her cast a challenging mix of familiar faces, established stars, and untried, raw talent… which somehow gels and works.
Two films that tackle the collapse of the Greek economy with mixed results are Syllas Tzoumerkas’ drama A BLAST and Ken McMullen’s OXI: AN ACT OF RESISTANCE. A Blast is by far the more effective, focusing on the physically strong Maria (a riveting performance from Angeliki Papoulia), who has been left powerless by the financial crisis, with debts piling up, three kids, and a husband who works, plays and strays far away from home. This contrasts with flashbacks showing their past life of passionate fulfilment, and energetic sex. Now she’s taking desperate action, as she leaves her kids with her sister and right-wing brother-in-law, and heads off as her existence splinters around her.
OXI, however, might be well-intentioned, but suffers from over-intellectualised structure and content. Mixing bits of Ancient Greek culture and history with speeches from modern thinkers, economists and experts, even flashes of solid acting from the likes of John Shrapnel and Dominique Pinon (of Amelie fame, and also in My Old Lady) cannot save this.
Kutlug Ataman’s THE LAMB foregrounds a poor Anatolian family who can’t afford a lamb to be slaughtered for their son’s traditional circumcision feast. The boy’s knowing older sister convinces him that if they can’t get a lamb, he will be killed instead, which understandably horrifies him. An odd, but endearing blend of high comedy with tough family drama, which looks stunning (as Ataman is also an artist), this shows how dire straits can force ordinary people to consider drastic action. Thank goodness that a couple of the female characters use their brains…
In Andrea Sedlackova’s gritty drama, FAIR PLAY, athlete Anna is being groomed for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as an emblem of successful Czechoslovakian socialism. This is the paranoid 1980s, and pressured by her coach she signs away her medical and physical welfare, as she’s put on steroids that soon have side effects. Her mother was a top tennis player who took part in the Prague Spring, her father is in exile, and her musician boyfriend is encouraging her individualism, so Anna starts to open her eyes and see how the State is spreading its tentacles. But as they resort to bugging the family’s apartment, have they pushed her too far in forcing her to conform and perform?
Maya Vitkova’s ambitious and hugely imaginative film VIKTORIA (right) is about a girl born to a doting dad, with a mum who never wanted her. And as she’s born just as the country comes into being, she’s showered with gifts, chauffeured to school, and indulged by the President, for whom she’s become symbolic and to whom she has a hotline. Quite frankly Viktoria is a horrible, bullying child. But as she turns nine, communism collapses and her spoilt lifestyle ends. Can she survive the fallout? What will her parents do? With equal measures of levity and tragedy, this is a terrific and plausible fable from another female director to watch.
Containing strong parallels with Viktoria, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s THE PRESIDENT is a post-Arab Spring fable about survival, forgiveness and retribution, that constantly shifts in tone between high comedy and utter desolation. It all starts with a dictator who presides in blissful ignorance over his unnamed country as his subjects teeter on the brink of revolution. He even shows off to his impressionable young grandson, as they switch all the lights off in their capital city, resulting in unrest that quickly turns into riots and insurrection. Fleeing their subjects, who are baying for blood, the President and grandson go on the run, disguising themselves as street entertainers, hiding out in bleak landscapes, and witnessing what their country has turned into. With echoes of Pilgrim’s Progress and It’s A Wonderful Life, this never looks like having a happy resolution, especially when they are literally chased with pitchforks.
Go to page 5 for Africa and The Middle East…