In this year’s awards season, it was trebles all round for this quirky, flippant tragicomedy of booze, which snagged an Oscar and Bafta for best foreign language film. Its Danish title is “Druk”, a term which is maybe best translated by adding the letter N. Thomas Vinterberg’s film, reuniting him with actor Mads Mikkelsen (who starred in his drama The Hunt in 2012) is based on a pseudoscientific theory which put me in mind of Humphrey Bogart’s bleary dictum about the rest of the world being three drinks behind. People spend a lot of time in this film getting very, very drunk and maybe in the wacky traditions of Denmark’s Zentropa Studios, the actors were indeed required to get genuinely hammered before the cry of “Action!"
The smoulderingly impassive Mikkelsen plays Martin, a high-school history teacher at an institution where the teens imbibe their drinking ethic early on, with an OTT drinking game they play on graduating, and learn to associate binge drinking with youthful health and happiness. Martin hangs out a bit with three other morose middle-aged teachers: Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Pedro (Lars Ranthe) and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang). They are all pretty underpar these days, but Martin seems especially to have lost his mojo, mumbling and stumbling his way through lessons in ways that alarm the students.
Then the guys have an idea: they have come across a theory from the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skarderud that the blood-alcohol content of all human beings is always too low, and if measures could be taken to up the booze quotient in everyone’s bloodstream, this would be an entirely acceptable way of treating depression. (Skarderud is a genuine figure, but I’m not sure if he has ever in real life actually said this or if the four fictional ale-heads have misunderstood a more anodyne comment.)
So they set out to do just this, furtively tippling during the day with clear spirits clandestinely decanted into mineral water bottles – in the sad and sleazy way of alcoholics everywhere. Martin refines their approach in line with something he has heard about Ernest Hemingway: that if you cease your drinking by 8:00pm every day, this regulates the work/life/booze balance. (He appears unfazed by how Hemingway ended his days.) Soon Martin has got his zing back, cheerfully telling his history class about his and their new hero, Winston Churchill, who wrote numberless books and saved the world from fascism while (or because of) being completely wrecked.
It really is a strange film: it could be that Vinterberg wanted something like Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe from 1973 about four guys who set out to eat themselves to death, and there are moments, especially when the four drunk guys are running around like kids, when it reminded me of John Cassavetes’s Husbands from 1970. Inevitably, the drinking can’t be maintained on this faux-medicinal level as they naively assume. Health is wrecked, careers are trashed, relationships are ruined and marital beds are urinated in.
But Vinterberg seems also to want to upend our liberal pieties about excessive drinking being bad. There’s a scene in which one teacher encourages a student to drink before a viva examination and … well …. it clearly doesn’t do him any harm and may even have crucially steadied his nerves.
I wondered throughout this film if Vinterberg intended his film (which he co-wrote with Tobias Lindholm) to be a really cheeky piece of provocation, like Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots, but didn’t quite have the nerve, and so settled on something which really doesn’t know quite what to say about the place about drinking in our society: other than it is here to stay – and that being drunk looks much, much worse on middle-aged people than it does on young people. But come to think of it, it looks pretty bad on the young as well. The performances are persuasive and watchable, especially Mikkelsen, the guys’ alpha-leader, who ruinously makes being drunk look pretty acceptable until it is too late.