There’s four things you can be in life: sober, tipsy, drunk, hungover. Tipsy’s the only one out of the four where you don’t cry during it.
— James Acaster, Repertoire
The above quote may as well be the thesis statement of Another Round, Thomas Vinterberg’s stunning endeavour to create what he describes as “a [nuanced] tribute to alcohol”. Reuniting with Mads Mikkelsen (who starred in Vinterberg’s The Hunt in 2013), the film very nearly runs the whole gamut of the alcoholic spectrum, capturing the possibilities, deficits, euphoric highs and ragged lows of a substance that has captivated human culture for millennia.
Mikkelsen plays Martin, one of four teachers who embark on a daring experiment inspired by Finn Skårderud’s theory that human beings are born with a 0.5% blood alcohol level shortfall. Skårderud posits that with that extra blood alcohol content (around one to two glasses of wine’s worth), everyone would be a little better, brighter, freer. Frustrated with the stagnant, dull state of their middle-aged lives, the men decide to test his theory. Their hope is to become, as fellow teacher Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) puts it, “more musical and open, more confident in general”. Rather than just using alcohol as a distraction or source of pleasure, the men aspire to use it to become better teachers, better artists, better coaches. There is an almost spiritual reverence for tipsiness’ potential — the goal is to be lucid, but loosened. It’s an exercise in moderation, in bringing themselves to a state far more difficult to sustain than either sobriety or full-blown drunkenness. It’s fascinating to watch — especially if you, like me, haven’t drunk alcohol in years.
I don’t, in the immortal words of Whitmer Thomas, have a drinking problem per se. Of course, that’s exactly the sort of thing someone with a drinking problem would say, so let me elaborate: I have been drunk exactly once in my life. It took four drinks to get me there — the most I have ever had. Most of my life I’ve been sober. The last time I drank alcohol was just over two years ago, at a New Year’s party, where I had a single sip of white wine, and all it gave me was a sense of confirmation: yep, I don’t want this. It would be very difficult to classify me as someone with a drinking problem.
And yet, my relationship to alcohol does feel somewhat troubled. Maybe you could call it a sobriety problem. I don’t mean to imply that sobriety itself is a bad thing, but my motivations for it haven’t always been helpful. Amongst manifold other reasons, my avoidance of alcohol has always been founded in part by the fear that I will like it too much — that it will be exactly what I need. I don’t trust myself to be able to sustain moderation, to avoid slipping from choice to dependence. So instead, I avoid it entirely. There’s a pattern of self-denial in my life, too — I’ve been anorexic, I’ve made celibacy pacts, I’ve done extreme digital detoxes — and sometimes sobriety has just been an extension of these ascetic, risk-averse tendencies. In no way do I feel pious about it — I admire those who are able to enjoy a drink or two, and consider them impressively well-adjusted for being able to do so. I struggle with moderation as much as an alcoholic does — I’m just on the other side of the extremes.
I recognise a lot of these parts of myself in Another Round’s Martin — a withdrawn, quiet man whose life is fine but somewhat stagnant, who lives in safety to the point of dullness, who is described as “invisible” and “never present”. He asks his wife, “Have I become boring?”, and worryingly, she doesn’t say no. Even his students complain that he is a disengaged teacher. He doesn’t seem happy with the state of things, either; with being stuck in this grey place. This is a man clearly in need of something liberating.
The first time we see Martin drink is at Nikolaj’s 40th birthday. Hesitant at first, he eventually takes a sip — then, struck by the relief it offers, downs the rest. Tears spring to his eyes, perhaps from the release, the catharsis of what it feels like to fucking loosen up for once. He blinks them back and smiles, quietly agreeing that the wine is good. I recognise this feeling, of remembering a simple pleasure you had once forgotten. I know how stirring, how significant it can be for someone like Martin, someone like me, to allow themselves a moment of feeling good.
The danger, of course, is that when you find the thing that gives you relief, you might never want to let it go.
As the project begins, everything the men predicted seems to come true. Convening to discuss the results of their experiment so far, Martin comments: “I haven’t felt this good in ages.” It’s palpable in his voice, visible on his face — a return to a feeling that has been absent for years. He’s less restrained, more youthful. The students at school discuss Kierkegaard’s theory that one must live without anxiety “in order to love others and life”, and Martin seems to embody it.
Ever since becoming an adult, I have been fixated on the idea of being present, of being in-my-body, in a way that I don’t always feel I am. Anxiety and other neuroses make it difficult to be present in this way, and alcohol has at times served as a gateway to the embodiment I’m seeking — peeling away my self-awareness and second-guessing, getting me out of my mind and into my body, letting me have fun in the moment. But it remains a short-term fix, and a risky one — as good as it often feels, I’ve opted out. But has that been the right choice? Is risky, short-term pleasure always a bad thing? Another student in Martin’s class quotes Kierkegaard: “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”
I mentioned Whitmer Thomas earlier — someone who has talked at length about his own sobriety, and his mother’s death as a result of alcoholism. In his song ‘Partied to Death’, he links his sobriety directly to his trauma, singing: Now I can’t party ‘cause my mommy partied to death. For someone like Thomas, the ability to drink (in moderation) may actually signal progress, or an achievement of some sort, as he suggests in an interview with Mark Hoppus:
THOMAS: Every year, I make the New Year’s resolution to start drinking.
HOPPUS: That’s your New Year’s resolution? To start drinking?
HOPPUS: That’s a terrible resolution.
THOMAS: Until a few years ago, I had a terrible relationship with alcohol. I really hated it. Even though I’d never say anything, it made me feel uncomfortable if my girlfriend or somebody had a drink. But I’m over that now. I feel much more confident and happy with who I am, so I don’t really think about it anymore. I’m open to drugs and alcohol, but I don’t feel a need to be getting fucked up.
Sobriety can be incredibly healthy and valuable, but for Thomas, it was tied up in his “terrible relationship with alcohol”. The same act that harms one person in one situation may help the other in another, and attempting to determine whether inebriation is inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is futile — the answer changes across time, space, and experience. As Martin reminds his students in Another Round, things are always more complicated than they seem.
Complexity abounds in Another Round, and there are few simple or clear answers to anything. Are we witnessing brilliance, or myopic self-delusion? Both answers seem reductive. On the one hand, there are moments when alcohol does seem to shake them out of their stale habits. On the other, there’s something inevitably pathetic about the fact that they’re all men, and that their inspirations for the project are people like Hemingway and Churchill. The story of men convincing themselves that inebriation is a pathway to genius is not a new one. In Leslie Jamison’s searing addiction memoir The Recovering, she writes: “The Old Drunk Legends were all men. It was like they’d built their own tombs from one another’s myths, in a testosterone-steeped lineage of inflated egos and glorified dysfunction”.
The men of Another Round constantly refer back to these Old Drunk Legends, their touchstones of the inebriated genius myth, to affirm the gravitas of what they’re doing and imbue their drinking with a higher significance. The greats did it, they tell themselves, so they must’ve been onto something. But the project’s status as an experiment is shaky at best, considering it’s not happening under any sort of controlled conditions. At times, the term ‘research’ is simply an excuse to get fucked up and avoid responsibility for it. There are likely myriad other reasons for the men’s stasis unrelated to their sobriety — but drinking is the quickest path out, and the one that requires the least effort on their part. So they take it.
I’ve had many experiences in which people, on finding out I’m sober, suddenly confide in me about their own troubled relationships to alcohol, or ask me for advice on quitting — something they only seem comfortable doing because I don’t drink. There’s a sense that if I was drinking too, there’d be no one present to challenge drinking culture, only people enabling and reflecting their own behaviour back at them. In Another Round, this dilemma is personified by gym teacher Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) — though the other men don’t initially notice, it seems clear that he is an alcoholic who is simply thrilled to be enabled by this so-called ‘experiment’.
As noted in the quote that opens this essay, ‘tipsy’ may be the state in which human beings are the least likely to cry. To be tipsy all the time, the men of Another Round believe, is to feel good all the time — and the film’s sound design would seem to agree. Everything is a bit more fun when they’re drinking — the music is upbeat and vibrant, the bass pumps louder, life is a party. (This film begs to be seen in cinemas, where you can be immersed in the music and the moment — the feeling is, quite literally, intoxicating.)
But perhaps we should ask: is it good to feel good all the time? Is it healthy to never cry; to avoid all sadness, pain, and difficult feelings? When the men tap into tipsiness temporarily, with intention — as a social lubricant, a means of more confidently teaching, or even, shockingly, to help a student through an exam — it seems to be helpful. But when they try to keep themselves permanently in that state, it inevitably, unsurprisingly, turns into nothing more than alcoholism. They drink a little bit more, then more, then more, always convincing themselves that it’s for the sake of the experiment — but Tommy is a living warning of the long-term effects of their project. Seemingly resigned to his own alcoholism, he still tries to warn others away — “You don’t want this,” he tells Martin.
Tommy is right. Perpetual drunken excess is not transcendent, or genius — it’s simply another banal form of suffering. Martin’s wife likes his inordinate drinking about as much as she liked his inordinate restraint. Tommy’s life is not the one he wants. What life, then, does he want?
One of the many gods worshipped by my ancestors was Dionysus, the god of wine (amongst other things, including festivity, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy). As someone who ruled over frenzy, Dionysus has often been associated with a kind of reckless, drunken abandon — but even the worship of the wine-god came with a message of moderation. In a 4th century play by the writer Eubulus, Dionysus proclaims:
I mix three [glasses] only for those who are wise.
One is for good health, which they drink first.
The second is for love and pleasure.
The third is for sleep, and when they have drunk it those who are wise wander homewards.
The fourth is no longer ours, but belongs to hubris.
The fifth leads to shouting.
The sixth to a drunken revel.
The seventh to black eyes.
The eighth to a summons.
The ninth to bile.
The tenth to madness, in that it makes people throw things.
Dionysus’ three-drink recommendation is similar to the limits the men impose on themselves in Another Round. The difficulty, the goal, is sticking to these limits — being what Dionysus calls wise. And, true to the wine-god’s warnings, it’s when they exceed these limits that they descend into hubris. As if following his predictions exactly, there’s shouting, drunken revelry, black eyes and throwing things. There’s even a ‘summons’, when their coworkers call a meeting to investigate the issue. In an interview, Mikkelsen sums it up as: “When you’re playing darts — two glasses, you hit the bullseye. Two bottles, you’re missing the board.”
But where most films about alcohol gloss briefly over its benefits and then mine its drawbacks for dramatic potential, Another Round refuses to deny the joyful exhilaration of tipsiness. In fact, these are the moments in which it luxuriates. It celebrates the pure, carnal fact of feeling good, and while brutally demonstrating how intoxicated pleasure can come at a price, its message is more challenging, and more truthful, than most films on the subject dare to be — it suggests that alcohol is both good and bad for us, and asks us to live with the coexistence of its pros and cons. It doesn’t leave us with any clarity about the ‘right choice’ to make with alcohol, because there is no answer, no script, no one-size-fits-all solution. It simply presents us with the facts: This is what it is, and this is what it can do. Sometimes it is purely bad. Sometimes it is purely good. Sometimes it is both at once.
I still don’t plan to start drinking again. But Another Round made me reconsider my puritanical judgements of alcohol as inherently, consistently, universally harmful and devoid of value. It opened me up to the possibilities that my relationship to alcohol might continue to shift, that the things that serve me now might not serve me in the future, and that constantly adapting and re-evaluating my boundaries can be deeply conducive to growth.
Another Round is a feat of complicated honesty, acknowledging the harm that can come from alcohol while simultaneously acknowledging its benefits. It doesn’t offer up easy answers, and is disinterested in moralistic proselytizing. It finds the holiness in restraint, and the holiness in frenzied abandon. If there is anything to take away from Another Round, it’s this ambiguity — something made manifest in its dizzying, electrifying final sequence. Mikkelsen is phenomenal, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him good, and in this moment, he makes the film unmissable.
Experiencing the end of Another Round, an exhilarating, thrilling wonder, I am reminded of the Dionysian Mysteries — a ritual in which worshippers used “intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state”. By the end of the film, it’s hard to say whether we’re witnessing liberation or descent — whether, as Mikkelsen puts it, “he’s flying or whether he’s falling”. We cannot know where Martin will go from here, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps, as Dionysus’ worshippers suggest, that is all that can ever come from a mature engagement with the question of alcohol: mysteries.
Another Round is now playing in Australian cinemas.
Ivana Brehas is a writer and filmmaker living on Wathaurong land. She has written for Dazed, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She also makes lil videos. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.
If alcohol is harming you or someone you know, contact a professional. DrinkWise lists a range of substance abuse support services available in Australia.