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Danish auteur Nils Malmros turns the camera on his own tragic backstory in Sorrow and Joy (Sorg Og Glaede), a deeply personal and rather heavy-handed auto-biopic about how the director’s wife murdered their infant daughter back in 1984. Tough and unsparing, but lacking nuance and plausibility despite its factual underpinnings, the film is far less convincing than Joachim Lafosse’s recent and very similar Our Children, which managed to turn its dark subject matter into riveting drama. As the latter movie only received scattered distribution, Sorrow will be a tough sell outside the festival circuit, where it debuted in competition in Rome.
While the story was clearly drawn from the life of Malmros — who’s considered the father of Danish realism and screened his 1981 work Tree of Knowledge in Cannes — this will only be obvious for those familiar with his biography, or else for viewers who wait for a footnote in the closing credits. Otherwise, one has to take what happens at face value, which is not always easy considering the actions and decisions of its two protagonists — although the filmmaker deserves credit for treating his characters so mercilessly, at least until the movie takes a dubious 180° turn in its closing epilogue.
Things immediately hit the ground running when the young director, Johannes (Jakob Cedergren), arrives home from a conference to learn that disaster has struck his home: For reasons explored in detail later on, his schoolteacher wife, Signe (Helle Fagralid), has stabbed their 9-month-old daughter to death, and is being held in a psychiatric ward for committing such an act of insanity.
One would expect a father to go bananas at this point, but Johannes’ reaction is rather colder and distant. Even more surprising, he accepts the wish of Signe’s students that she come back to teach, although a judge will be left to decide under what conditions and for how long Signe will be locked away.
If many viewers may be scratching their heads by now, Malmros switches gears in the second act, when Johannes begins revealing vital background information to a psychiatrist (vet Nicolas Bro, a star of the upcoming Nymphomaniac) whose clinical opinion will be a key factor in his wife’s case.
Thus begins a series of flashbacks, where we follow Johannes and Signe from their chance meeting in a bar, to the day Signe moves in, to their marriage, the birth of their baby, Maria, and on to the final buildup before the murder.
During these sequences, it becomes increasingly evident that Signe is far from stable, and that Johannes is often a selfish and condescending a-hole who treats his spouse like a child. In one scene, he insults her taste in furniture design; in another he convinces her to flush her supply of Lithium down the toilet, even though she obviously needs it.
Johannes’ awful behavior is compounded by his growing interest in the 16-year-old actress (Maja Dybboe) starring in his latest film. Rather than keep his distance, he begins concocting a new project for the girl, about a father obsessed with his teenage daughter — an idea that begins to spark a rage of jealousy in Signe, and is one of many factors that drives her over the edge.
If Sorrow and Joy is meant to be some kind of confession on Malmros’ part, then it certainly succeeds in revealing his share of guilt in such an awful event. “This was the only way I could disengage myself from him,” is what Signe writes to in a letter after the murder, and she’s clearly saying that Johannes is also responsible for it, if not the actual cause — a situation also explored more vigorously in Our Children.
Yet unlike Lafosse, Malmros never transforms his material into a nuanced and powerful drama. His direction is often icy and subdued, but far from subtle when it comes to certain scenes and dialogues, especially in the flashbacks. The movie also spends way too much time focusing on Johannes’ career, which takes away from the heart of the story, and is filled with details — including a project about Jesus he’s defending for a fellow director — that add little to the narrative at hand.
Even more troubling is the way the film seems determined, especially in its final section, to absolve its characters of their earlier behavior, and one ultimately gets the feeling that Malmros is attempting a form of cinematic therapy here, hoping that we can all arrive at the “joy” he promises in his title. And while it’s hard to question such private motivations, his movie never blossoms beyond a personal story that fails to hit enough universal notes.
Performances are decent across the board, although Cedergen (Submarino) plays his scenes with such a straight face that Johannes is not always easy to read, let alone like. Fagralid (King’s Game, The Killing) does a good job channeling Signe’s madness, while newcomer Dybboe is fitfully provocative as a Lolita who tips the family’s balance towards tragedy.
Production companies: Nordisk Film Production A/S
Cast: Jakob Cedergren, Helle Fagralid, Nicolas Bro, Ida Dwinger, Kristian Halken, Maja Dybboe
Director: Nils Malmros
Screenwriters: Nils Malmros, John Mogensen
Producer: Thomas Heinesen
Executive producers: Henrik Zein, Lena Haugaard
Director of photography: Jan Weincke
Production designer: Marianne Junge
Editor: Birger Moller Jensen
Sales agent: TrustNordisk
No rating, 107 minutes
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