Brothers in Arms and Love: Post-9/11 War Story From Denmark

Susanne Bier’s Brothers, from a screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, based on a story by Ms. Bier and Mr. Jensen, turns out to be a Danish film that presents one of the most powerful depictions of a conscience-stricken human being I have ever seen on the screen. Though Brothers is at times unexpectedly harrowing, it is neither a preachy anti-war diatribe nor a triangulated domestic drama, but it does show how even little wars can disrupt the most harmonious families.

If I were to tell you in advance that the two brothers are attracted to the same woman, you might think that you knew, more or less, what was going to happen, and you would be completely wrong-this is a film that focuses on the extraordinary goodness and sensitivity of people even when they come up against the most brutal evil imaginable. Indeed, Brothers is so disconcertingly original and surprising that even the official synopsis in the production notes makes the film seem more conventional than it is. As I have done so often in the past, I must caution the reader not to read any further if you haven’t yet seen the film and intend to do so. If your decision on seeing Brothers depends to any degree on my recommendation, I hereby give it two enthusiastic thumbs up.

The production notes offer the following synopsis:

“Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is released from prison and embraced by his brother Michael (Ulrich Thomsen), an upright soldier and family man being deployed to Afghanistan. The family tension is palpable as Jannik re-assumes his role of alcoholic deviant while his loving brother prepares for impending deployment. Shortly after commencing his tour of duty, Michael’s helicopter crashes and he is presumed dead. Jannik summons previously untapped maturity, aiding and comforting Michael’s two daughters and wife Sarah (Connie Nielsen). As Sarah and Jannik grow closer, their dependence and admiration intensify. A world away, Michael is alive, enduring the unimaginable in hopes of surviving to return home.”

Of course, the distributors don’t want to give the whole plot away in their synopsis, and so they shouldn’t. Still, in the process, they have created false expectations of where the film is going and of what transpires. As it happens, even the film’s title is misleading in that it reduces the significance of Sarah, the wife, who, in some ways, is the emotional core of the drama. This is true particularly in view of the magical interpretation of the role by Ms. Nielsen, a Danish-born international and multilingual actress (English, German, Danish, Swedish, French and Italian) who has seemed in the past, at least to me, much more interesting than the parts she’s played.

Best known, if known at all, as the amoral empress in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), Ms. Nielsen was billed below Oscar-winning Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix. Her other non-attention-getting roles were in Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate (1997), in which she was billed not only below co-stars Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves, but also below Charlize Theron; Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998), near the bottom of the cast; and Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo (2002), in which she was billed just below Robin Williams, but who remembers anyone else besides Mr. Williams from that movie? Ms. Nielsen finally received top billing and the lead role in Olivier Assayas’ French-made Demonlover (2002), but she played an unsympathetic corporate spy who comes to a bad end in a snuff film. And so it has gone with Ms. Nielsen’s career, which may explain the sheer surprise with which I responded to her performance in Brothers-a performance that makes her my summer-book favorite as best actress of 2005.

I know it’s too late to do anything about it, but I am convinced that her basic problem has been her name, particularly that “Connie,” which makes her sound like a contestant on American Idol. Ironically, though she was born in Denmark, Brothers is her first Danish film.

Not that Mr. Thomsen as Michael, Sarah’s husband, and Mr. Kaas as Jannik, her brother-in-law, are any less superb in their roles; it’s just that Ms. Nielsen supplies much of the texture in the film’s expression of warm family feelings, which transcends the somewhat contrived elements of the plot. For example, the picture begins with Michael welcoming Jannik upon his release from prison. We quickly learn that Jannik has been in prison for bank robbery and that Michael is a major in the Danish Army who is about to embark for Afghanistan on some unspecified mission. (I didn’t even know that there were any Danish troops in Afghanistan.) There is nothing condescending about Michael’s warm fraternal feelings for Jannik, who is ashamed but not resentful that he has turned into the black sheep of the family. But when Michael suggests that Jannik visit the bank teller he terrorized into a nervous breakdown and apologize for his actions, Jannik angrily demands that Michael stop the car, and he gets out to skulk across an empty field.

Michael is at dinner with Sarah, their two small children, Natalie (Sarah Juel Werner) and Camilla (Rebecca Logstrup Soltau), Michael’s mother Else (Solbjorg Hojfeldt) and father NP (Paw Henriksen), when a tentative knock is heard at the door: It’s the shame-faced Jannik, whom Michael embraces again as if nothing had happened. All the while, Sarah is glowing with an all-encompassing lovingness that warms the whole family. It is difficult to describe the harmony of the family members without making it seem banal and sentimental, but Ms. Bier has directed her players with a spiritual intensity I can describe only as Dreyeresque.

Almost immediately, Michael has to pack up to go to Afghanistan. Sarah doesn’t want him to go, but Michael has always been an unostentatious paragon of virtue, unlike his irresponsible, tavern-frequenting brother. There are small signs that Michael is not as passionate in his relationship with Sarah as she is with him. When he jokes on a cell-phone call from Afghanistan that he won’t be lonely with all the Danish nurses on hand, Sarah abruptly and strangely hangs up on him. From that point on, the film is bisected between Michael’s point of view and experiences and Sarah’s.

When Michael’s helicopter crashes over a lake, he is presumed dead and his family is notified. Sarah is inconsolable, as are Michael’s mother and father, but Jannik, though grief-stricken himself, steps in with a newfound maturity and sobriety to help Sarah and her children adjust to the sudden void. He gets two handymen that he christens Preben 1 (Lars Ranthe) and Preben 2 (Lars Hjortshoj) to help him repair Sarah’s kitchen. On a few occasions, Jannik sleeps over in the living room, but Sarah now always sleeps with her children. In the midst of her grief, Sarah and Jannik exchange one tentative kiss, after which Jannik-still intimidated by his memory of Michael-flees in guilt-ridden panic. Sarah sweetly and smilingly forgives and reassures him when he returns later, crestfallen as always.

Meanwhile, we learn that Michael has survived the crash but has been taken prisoner by the Taliban and thrown into a stone hut, which he shares with a captured Danish enlisted man named Henning (Solbjorg Hojfeldt). Michael finds himself once more in a position of moral authority (as with his brother) with the ever-fearful Henning. But their Taliban captors turn out to be even shrewder and crueler torturers than Michael had anticipated. One day they take both men outside and order Michael to kill Henning with an iron rod. If he doesn’t, he will be killed as well; if he does, his life will be spared. Michael refuses at first, but the thought of never seeing Sarah drives him into a frenzy, during which he kills Henning with repeated blows; he is then thrown into the hut, where he throws up with a mixture of shame and self-loathing. He will never be the same again.

When Michael is finally rescued by British soldiers, he insists that he never saw any other prisoners during his captivity in response to very pointed questions. Meanwhile, Jannik tells Sarah that he finally took Michael’s advice and went to the woman he had terrorized during his long-ago bank robbery. Her family was hostile to him, but she came out to see him and to tell him that she had recurring nightmares that he’d come back to kill her. When Jannik swore to her that he would never hurt her again, she wept with relief and hugged him. Jannik is still shaken by the experience, but also somehow regenerated by this act of contrition.

By contrast, when Michael returns home, he remains in denial about his heinous crime, and his lingering guilt is eating away at his inner moral confidence, which has sustained him for the entirety of his life before his traumatic captivity. As if to spread his feeling of being contaminated, he accuses Sarah and Jannik of betraying him without really believing it. Matters reach a boiling point when Michael visits Henning’s wife, Ditte, of whom Henning had spoken admiringly to him, and Henning’s baby son, of whom he was so proud. Michael lies to Ditte that the last time he saw Henning, he was still alive and would probably be rescued. When Ditte leaves the room temporarily, Michael is left alone with Henning’s baby son, and his self-hatred is palpable in his expression.

When Michael finally explodes and threatens to kill Sarah and the children, Sarah calls Jannik, who calls the police. After a tense guns-drawn scene, Michael is taken into custody. When Sarah visits him, she tells him flatly that she will leave him forever if he doesn’t tell her what happened when he was being held captive. He collapses into her arms and sobs the words “He had a little boy.” Then: fade out. It’s a magnificent moment of emotional release.

You shouldn’t miss this film.

Unhappily Married

François Ozon’s 5 x 2, from a screenplay by Mr. Ozon with Emanuèle Bernheim, tells the story of a marital break-up backwards. The opening scene is set in a magistrate’s office, the terms of a divorce being read out in great detail, with both parties listening with apparent indifference to the myriad agreements. After this spasm of specificity, a fog of vagueness settles over the two protagonists, Marion (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss). Immediately after the divorce scene, we see the two in a hotel room and witness a coldly erotic act of forcible rape, during which a self-disrobed Marion screams out her anger and disgust. It’s never made clear why Marion and Gilles have gone to the hotel room in the first place. Afterward, Gilles asks Marion to stay so they can talk things out. Marion refuses, instead stalking out of the room and slamming the door behind her.

In a sequence three years before their divorce, Marion and Gilles are having dinner at home with Gilles’ gay brother and his younger male lover. In a frankly written scene, it’s made clear that the lover has no intention of remaining faithful to Gilles’ brother, and neither man believes in the possibility of lasting fidelity to one partner in either a gay or a straight relationship. In an interview with Mr. Freiss on his interpretation of Gilles’ motivations, he suggests that in the end Gilles confirms his own homosexual tendencies by his forcible sodomizing of Marion.

Nothing else in the film supports this hypothesis, but Mr. Ozon’s pervasive pessimism about human relationships, straight and gay, throughout his career is consistent with Mr. Freiss’ suggestion of Gilles’ uneasily ambiguous sexuality. In any event, Marion and Gilles are shown as sophisticated enough to entertain gay friends, and Marion displays a flair for flirting with them.

Another three years back, Marion is giving birth to the couple’s only child. Though it’s a difficult delivery, Gilles is nowhere to be seen. Even when he encounters his father, Bernard (Michael Lonsdale), and his mother, Monique (Françoise Fabian), outside the hospital, he can’t force himself to follow them upstairs to Marion’s side. For her part, Monique is not surprised by Gilles’ behavior, since her own husband had behaved with similar callousness when she gave birth to Gilles. This sort of settling of old scores is a familiar intergenerational ploy in Hollywood movies, but usually without the callousness of father and son. But America is the land of happy endings, and for Mr. Ozon and his European compatriots, love stories only have happy beginnings.

Another three years in the past, we see the joyous wedding ceremony and reception for Marion and Gilles. But on their wedding night, Gilles falls asleep on a frustrated and exasperated Marion. She rushes outside the seaside hotel to a lonely beach, where she allows herself to be seduced by a young American tourist. Afterward, she guiltily rushes back to the hotel to find Gilles still blissfully asleep. At this point, even I-who am usually the last to know about these matters-began to wonder about Gilles.

Finally, we’re back to the beginning of Marion and Gilles as a team. Though they barely know each other, they resume a brief acquaintance at an island resort, even though he has come there with another woman. Finding themselves alone on the beach, they decide to go for a swim together, and the camera stays on the shore while they swim and frolic farther and farther away to the final fade-out. As Mr. Ozon summarized his film: “On set, my joke was ‘we’re starting with Bergman, we’ll end with Lelouch.'”

There are, of course, other stylistic precedents for Mr. Ozon’s 5 x 2-precedents with which Mr. Ozon, like most contemporary filmmakers, is overly familiar. Most notoriously, there is Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002), which is told backwards, beginning with a luridly extended rape scene in a Parisian pedestrian tunnel, after which the film traces back through the various lives shattered by this violent crime. And then there’s Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), which combines time lapses with a hero suffering from short-term memory loss and the unsolved mystery of his wife’s murder. More gimmicky than ingenious, Mr. Nolan’s stunt exercise has been much overrated by younger moviegoers, who were mesmerized by the sheer spectacle of a gun being fired backward in time with the bullet shown going into the barrel.

Interestingly enough, Mr. Ozon reportedly tested both of his leads with a scene from Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) before casting them in their roles. With his convoluted narrative, Mr. Ozon has avoided some of the sentimental pitfalls of his subject, but only at the expense of much of its suspense. He is so skimpy with information that we never learn, for example, what Marion and Gilles do for a living, nor how much money they make. In the end, however, despite all the distractions from the trips back in time, Gilles seems much more the problem than Marion, though Mr. Ozon seems reluctant to come right out and say so. It is perhaps just as well, since marriage itself is one of the most impenetrable mysteries of all.

Goodbye, Ismail

The shockingly unexpected death of Ismail Merchant (1936-2005) saddened me immeasurably: It was as if the one unfailingly genial and cheerful presence in many of our lives had been stolen from us. Ismail seemed to embrace the world at every opportunity, even when the world was not choosing to embrace him. My only consolation is that I was privileged to know him through good times and bad for both of us.