Danish director Nils Malmros is little known in this country, or outside of his native Denmark; within that country he is quite highly regarded. Lincoln Center brought him stateside as part of their recently ongoing Film Comment Selects series, showing most if not all of his films. I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of his work, but I had seen 1983’s Beauty and the Beast, a masterly film about a single father coming to terms with his adolescent daughter’s sexuality and desire for freedom. Based on my love of that film, I saw Pain of Love and Sorrow and Joy in back-to-back screenings, with Malmros himself present for a Q&A. The result was surprising, in that I emerged not loving these other works, but with a fairly critical take. Because the films were presented together, and as they relate to “true” events within the director’s life, which he expounded upon during the Q&A, I will evaluate the films together as well.
There is no point in beating around the bush; both films deal with a traumatic event in Malmros’s personal life. In 1984, his wife had a psychotic break during which she killed their infant daughter. She had struggled with mental problems her whole life, and has since recovered, at least enough to live normally within society. Malmros was at pains during the Q&A to make clear the extent of his wife’s problems, and the fact that he does not blame her, to the point that it felt like an apologia, or that he is perhaps defensive about the topic (in his gentle, Scandinavian way of course). The films, however, are the true defense of these events, and what makes them difficult films is that in both the director seems to shy away from a thoroughgoing evaluation of his own role in their unfolding. Does he have a role in them? It would be hard to say if one saw only Pain of Love without Sorrow and Joy, or vice versa, but the director claimed, during the Q&A, that the former film portrays the events “from his wife’s point of view,” while the later film portrays them from his (and, we are given to understand, from an objective point of view as well).
In Pain of Love, Malmros addresses the events discursively, sublimating them and transforming them through the creative process. The film deals, as many of Malmros’s films do, with adolescent desire and coming of age; in this case, it is the story of his wife’s life as a late teenager and young adult, just before she met him. Kirsten (Anne Louise Hassing) is a bubbly and buoyant teen, well-liked and with a boyfriend she adores and dotes on. All the same, something is not quite right within her world, signaled by her overly eager demeanor and broad to the point of breaking smile. (We later understand, only obliquely, that she is manifesting the manic side of manic-depression). When her boyfriend proposes marriage before they head away to college, she puts him off, and proceeds to become smitten with one of the young teachers in her high school. This being the 70s, and Scandinavia, they drink together and kiss a little, but the teacher breaks it off before it can progress beyond this point. Kirsten goes off to college, but at this point, things begin falling apart. Originally wanting to be a doctor, she fails her exams, not through any inherent lack of intelligence, but because she is distracted, and seems taken aback when her natural charm is not enough to pull her through the end-of-semester orals. Her old teacher crush Soren (Soren Ostergaard) reenters the scene, and helps her pass her exams (just barely). Perhaps hoping for a renewal of their romance, Kirsten is distraught after Soren marries another teacher. Kirsten becomes pregnant after sleeping with an older man she meets in a bar (who appears to be a film director or well-known creative type, but I am unable to verify this). This drives her depression farther forward, and she becomes gloomy and detached, fixated on Soren and assured of her own failure (even though by now she works as a teacher). Eventually, she tries to commit suicide (failing where her maternal grandfather succeeded). She recovers, but remains depressed and set on Soren as the solution to her problems. Eventually, his marriage to the other teacher falls apart, and slowly he reenters her orbit, eventually marrying her. She moves in with him, and he is a father to her child, but the distance is never breached, and the film ends with Kirsten, unlike in real life, killing herself and leaving the child behind.
With Sorrow and Joy, enough time has passed that the director feels he can tell the story of the tragedy directly, from “his point of view.” In this telling, we begin with the sad event, recounted from filmmaker Johannes’s (Jakob Cedergren) perspective, as he arrives home one evening after giving a lecture to find his wife gone, his child dead, and his in-laws beyond distressed. His wife, Signe (Helle Fagralid), has been remanded to psychiatric care, and the bulk of the film is told in Johannes’s voice, in flashback, as he dialogues with Signe’s forensic psychologist and tries to explore and explain what happened. Thus we go back in time to find Johannes single, for some time, it is intimated. He meets schoolteacher Signe in a bar, and the two become a couple, despite differences: Signe’s parents, and by extension Signe, have “bourgeois taste,” which means that they like simple, directly expressive (kitschy) things; she is open and outgoing where he is reserved; she wears her heart on her sleeve while he is an intellectual. The two are a bit of an odd match, but we see how their differences are potentially complimentary as well. Signe becomes pregnant, and the film from there on out is a portrait of the day-to-day reality of their lives. Johannes starts filming a new movie (which will be Beauty and the Beast) and Signe becomes jealous, paranoid that he is falling for or involved with the film’s adolescent star (who he wrote the role for specifically). He takes on the defense of a fellow filmmaker whose movie about the sex life of Jesus has gotten him into trouble with financing and censorship. There are no major dramatics; instead, Johannes is often simply absent, and when present does not seem to know how to deal with or read his wife. Signe has not hid her mental problems from Johannes, but after her pregnancy and as time goes on, the manic-depression becomes more of a factor, and he is ill-prepared to deal with it (although he does so in the staid, calm, rational way one would expect). What develops, perhaps despite itself (it is difficult to say how consciously self-critical Malmros is in this film) is a portrait of a marriage where one partner is often mentally or physically absent, involved in his creative work, while the other, already of a type more expansive and less “self-sufficient,” becomes more neurotic and isolated. There is a minimal amount of “suspense,” as we await the outcome of the trial which will remand Signe to more or less time in a mental hospital (the parents of the students in her class, in typical Scandinavian fashion, all lobby for her to return to teaching as soon as possible), but really the film is not about outcomes, but about the nature of the husband/wife relationship. It forms a kind of loop; at the end, we see our couple in the year 2010, although not much aged at all. Signe is “better,” and asks her husband why he hasn’t made a film in so long, and why he hasn’t made one about being an adult. He takes this (and so does she, as portrayed) as a question about why he hasn’t addressed their marriage and the death of their child on film. He claims it is because he cannot portray such a thing – the scream of their dying child – but as soon as he says it, you can see the wheels start to turn, and he promptly announces that he could make a film about it, without portraying that moment. Indeed, the film, as he imagines it, can become something like a redemption. Our film, now also a prospective film, ends almost where it began, just shortly before Johannes drives off to give the lecture that fateful day. He arranges for his wife’s parents to stop by and check in on her (as she has just been released from the psychiatric hospital), and despite the bad weather, is about to head off. Having a premonition of violence, he stops, removes an ax from the stump in front of the house, and throws it into the tool bin within the garage. (His wife does not make use of an ax in any case). Then he drives off for his lecture, and the film ends.
Perhaps, dear reader, you can sense why these films feel odd. Pain of Love is definitely the odder of the two, which comes as little surprise, as it is avowedly about the tragic infanticide, yet will not approach it openly. It is also avowedly recounted from his wife’s “point of view,” yet imagines her as a latent teen, not the fully formed woman we find, perhaps bereft by the impacts of matrimony, in Sorrow and Joy. Pain of Love, made 8 years after the events it claims to portray, sublimates some details and changes others in the oddest ways. For instance, Malmros is not fully present in the narrative – he is partly portrayed as the older man who gets Kirsten pregnant, and also as the less-older teacher who helps her raise the child. This split preserves all the roles of fatherhood – the physical act of impregnation as well as the daily task of raising the child – while making the agency required less direct and hence less accountable. (We can only guess at why he imagines this child of his as the product of another, and he the loving “step-father,” but the guesses are none too flattering). Then there is the question of the ending; Kirsten leaves the baby behind, in the care of step-father Soren, while she takes leave of this mortal coil. If Malmros is not working out some kind of wish-fulfillment with this change, he should consider how it looks. Based on his Q&A talk, I think he is trying to signify that the death of the child was an act of self-destruction, rooted in issues to do with his wife’s self-conception, and not an act of hatred toward the infant or a violent rejection of motherhood. The fact that so many of the details have been shifted, and re-imagined within a different context, however, makes any reading squishy and unpleasant feeling, as the main topic becomes the question “Why didn’t he make Sorrow and Joy in 1992?” Malmros would claim that it was too soon… but my response would be, it was not too soon to make use of the events as fodder for an exercise in sublimation, that resulted in not only a weaker film on its own merits, but one that is now rife with strange projections and transformations that beg second level psychoanalyzing. It is a film that displays a hostility to his wife’s character that is itself sublimated.
Sorrow and Joy, while the stronger of the two films, also, in the end, misses the mark. At least in the more recent account, Malmros is present as a character, as is the question of how much he is responsible for the event. His character can definitely be criticized, which is a strength – his treatment of Signe is, at certain points, uncaring and unfair, and, at least in this instance, the film reflects this self-awareness. How aware he is of the other faults in his characterization is hard to tell, as they are simply portrayed, and not discussed within the rap session with the psychoanalyst. What worries me, and causes me to wonder how much Malmros might care to investigate his own affective life, is the ending of the film. The ending frames the making of Sorrow and Joy as a redemption of the tragedy. This I fully do not understand, especially as the last shots are of the empty gesture of Johannes moving the ax out of view of the house and into the garage, then leaving. Such an action is obviously only an attempt to assuage his guilt at leaving his sick wife at home during a fragile period; he senses something bad might happen, but displaces it onto an object both too emblematic of violence (too over the top) and also onto an empty gesture. Yes, by all means, move the ax so you can feel better about going to your lecture – like you’ve done something positive here. The film, as it ends, remains tragic, not redemptive, as, given the lacuna of 26 years, Johannes has learned nothing, and will still return home to find his child dead and his wife undone. If, as he states in the moments when he is formulating this new film, Johannes wants to move beyond the trauma through creation, he should make use of the power of film to transform reality, not merely replay it. The correct ending of this film (psychoanalytically speaking) would be for Johannes to blow off his lecture, stay at home with his dear wife, and, at least for that day, put off a dreadful future. That would have been a beautiful ending, one that dealt with recognitions honestly, and at the same time retained its sadness, and did not disavow the trauma that preceded it. It would have re-imagined an ideal future while acknowledging the frailty and faults of man. That Malmros apparently sees a mere repetition as a redemption signals, to me at least, a filmmaker satisfied with himself, for whom the passage of time is static and unyielding, healing all wounds in the style of a cliche: the work nothing more than the visible rippling of the surface of a body of water whose depth we cannot gauge, but whose impassivity is obvious in its aestheticization.