Despite its title and the obvious subject matter, druk is Danish for ‘binge drinking’, this film by Thomas Vinterberg of Festen/Dogme fame (1998), (and let’s not even get me started on the Dogme movement and my hostility against its craft) poses the very diaphanous question of what it means to be alive.
|Four friends and the night where it all began, Druk|
The answer is clearly multiple: some people go at it full pelt, whether it’s working yourself to death, or being excessive in consumption - alcohol, drugs, social media, shopping or some other thing; whilst some may live a balanced life (and a ‘balanced life’ would again mean different things to different people - work/life balance, spending time with family and friends etc); and yet still others may live a more sedentary life, having become complacent - many of us are simply existing, cruising through time and space - until you wake up one morning and are hit with the realisation of having to deal with the banality of living with oneself.
This problematic - the banality of life, and how to rise above it - is at the heart of this film.
The story centers around Martin (a magnificent Mads Mikkelsen), a history high school teacher who is staring down the barrel of a fading youth, and having to face his dispassionate students for yet another year of his job. He looks somewhat like a lost lamb, or a ghost of his former self. His home life is not any better, he hardly sees his wife (she works the night shift), let alone have any intimacy with her, and his two kids are more interested in video games or screentime than his presence. Martin finds solace with three best mates who are also high school teachers, and I would add, are also suffering the same fate in varying degrees. Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) is a divorcee and a soccer/PE coach; Peter (Lars Ranthe) is a music teacher; and finally Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) teaches psychology, and as the film progresses, becomes, appropriately, the documenter of this group’s social experiment.
|A celebration of being alive. Mikkelsen (centre) as |
Martin, with all the young graduates whose
lives are just beginning watching on, Druk
It all comes to a head for Martin at the celebratory birthday dinner for Nicholaj. The whole crew were enjoying champagne and oysters, wine was being freely poured; all introduced with a flourish by the sommelier, “the champagne has a mineral note” and “this vodka would make a Tsar weep” that kind of thing. At the start of the evening, Martin was simply being Martin, conversative and sensible, refusing to taste any of the alcoholic beverages because he has to drive home.
But gradually, as the talk turns, and after a few friendly jabs from his friends, his demeanour changes. He downs a shot of vodka and an entire glass of red without waiting for the toast, or luxuriating in the taste. His eyes water. His friends get a few details out of him and as the evening progresses and more alcohol is consumed, Martin becomes a happier version of himself.
During the dinner, Nikolaj had referenced Finn Skarderud, a Norwegian psychiatrist, who had purportedly written that man was born with a deficit of 0.05 percent blood alcohol concentration (BAC). And the idea that in order to live a full and happy life, the bar must be set at maintaining a BAC of 0.05 to be able to live that happier and more satisfactory life. (This quote was taken from Skarderud’s introduction to the book "The Psychological Effects of Wine" by 19th century Italian author Edmondo de Amicis. It was actually the premise that was quoted, and Skarderud refuted this premise in the very next line. But far from being misquoted, Skarderud was in fact asked by Vinterberg to be a consultant during shooting. His initial concerns about being misconstrued, especially since he was a practising doctor, abated because he felt the story’s exploration into the effects of alcohol was balanced and measured throughout.)
The next day back at school, Martin takes a pocket-sized bottle of Gordon’s gin with him and downs a good shot or two prior to class. The result was amazing, it was like he had switched gears, the world opened up and he was an illuminated man.
Once he confessed his actions and subsequent success to Nikolaj, the four friends met that afternoon and decided that they would test out Skarderud together. One of them even quoted Winston Churchill’s abstinence from drinking after 8pm as a rubber stamping of sorts for the whole shabang.
Mikkelsen’s performance took my breath away. He has always been a fine actor, and I remember him well in the The Royal Affair (2012). Nine years later, he’s still heart-achingly handsome and graced with a high degree of emotional intelligence. As Vinterberg said of his performance, Mikkelsen“is a finely tuned instrument”, highly nuanced; he is the emotional core the propels the film, and his range from a caring but desperately lost man to his soaring celebratory dance that closes the film, captures the very joy of being alive, and this transformation is nothing short of evocative, intoxicating, cathartic.
His friends who make up this quartet, are a group of fine actors. Bo Larsen’s Tommy is pitch-perfect as the slow unwinding of a man, Millang’s Nikolaj is the voice of reason, and Ranthe’s Peter is also wonderfully portrayed. You can catch Ranthe in a new gripping nordic noir series The Chestnut Man (2021) on Netflix. Note though, the set is an entirely dry one, and even without a drop of alcohol in their systems, these actors are able to pull off the finesse of being lubricated by ‘just the right amount’ of alcohol with some laugh-out-loud moments.
Although the deliverance afforded to Martin et al. took them by surprise, and in a good way to begin with; we all know that they’re treading on a fine edged sword that is difficult to balance on, one which can both quicken your release, or sink you like a stone.
Grøvlen films Mikkelsen's dance moves
Beautifully shot, the cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen recalls his earlier work on Sebastian Schipper’s hypnotic single-take film Victoria (2015). His ability to stay close to the characters immerses the audience into their world; sharing intimacy without ever being claustrophobic.
To close, l’d like to take a moment to remember Ida, Vinterberg’s daughter, who died four days into the shoot. In his own words, Vinterberg wanted to continue to make this film because he wanted to dedicate this film and the making of this film to her; to do so would mean being able to feel her presence throughout the film, the heart of which is to grasp the essence of existence, and to celebrate this gift we have of being alive.
Druk is currently showing on SBS on Demand.