"What a Life": Music and Intellectual Alcoholism in Another Round
by Sean Sabye
Thomas Vinterberg’s 2020 film Another Round (or Druk, directly translating to “binge drinking”) focuses on four high school teachers (Mads Mikkelson as Martin, Thomas Bo Larsen as Tommy, Magnus Millang as Nikolaj, and Lars Ranthe as Peter) and their collective experiment to determine if maintaining a constantly elevated BAC (or blood alcohol concentration) of 0.05% will “increase their social and professional performance.” The men attempt to intellectualize their testing of Norwegian philosopher and psychologist Finn Skårderud’s hypothesis by planning a “brilliant psychological essay” about their findings. The film’s use of sound, specifically the juxtaposition of classical and non-classical diegetic music, both communicates and comments on the characters’ academic and aesthetic justifications of overconsumption, conveying the dangers of their perpetual feast.
The scene that most aligns with the conventional definition of feasting, Nikolaj’s 40th birthday celebration, also happens to be the scene in which Nikolaj introduces the concept of Skårderud’s hypothesis to the other men. The four friends gather around a circular table at a high-class restaurant, its elite nature marked by the romantic forest murals enveloping the dining room, the attire of the other guests, and (most importantly) the menu––consisting of a Baerii caviar, a Jérome Chezeaux wine from Burgundy, and an Imperia vodka from Russia that “would put a smile on the Tsar’s face.” Nikolaj describes how a maintained BAC of 0.05% will hypothetically make a person “more relaxed and poised and musical [my italics] and open.” Martin initially abstains from consuming any of the top shelf alcohol offered at the meal; that is until Nikolaj remarks on the fact that Martin now lacks a “self-confidence” and “joy” once present in his teaching. As Martin sips the “wheat-fermented and cooled” vodka, the sound of a seemingly non-diegetic chorus of male voices chimes in with delicate harmonies. As the handheld camera pans around the table, it eventually reveals a quartet of male singers serenading a table of guests across the restaurant, re-situating the sound of the chorus in the diegetic reality of the scene. After a relatively long take of a medium-close shot of Martin, the handheld camera pans once more around the table. The chorus’ song overwhelms the sound of the other men speaking as Martin downs the rest of his vodka.
This feast acts as a gateway of sorts, introducing Martin to a reality of greater aesthetic awareness and appreciation, which he perceives as exclusively accessible via intoxication. It is the vodka that opens his ears to the music, granting him the ability to reach back to a younger, superior version of himself that could appreciate art, specifically classical music, on an intellectual and emotional level. This grasping at a more advanced aesthetic self only escalates throughout the course of the film, as the men aspire to reach beyond their former personal peaks of excellence toward an association with great artists of the past who were known to abuse alcohol.
After a few successful days of continual drunkenness, the four men meet to discuss the potential of elevating their maintained BAC past the level of 0.05%. They cite the work of classical composers like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Franz Schubert, and Klaus Heerfordt as examples of the brilliant potential outcomes of working “at the exact point of being neither drunk nor sober.” As they silently listen to Franz Schubert’s “Fantasie in F Minor,” the men appear elated. It is almost as if their relationship with alcohol brings them closer to comparison with a figure like Schubert. Their experiment could be viewed as a continuation of the work of Schubert, or Hemingway, or any other famously alcoholic artist, ushering their seemingly empirical research into the realm of creative expression.
In the scene that follows we see Martin listening to Tchaikovsky’s “The Tempest” while consuming two generous vodka tonics early in the morning (figure 2). This scene marks a shift from the men feeling kinship with alcoholic academics and artists to mobilizing the experience of their art or work as an excuse to get drunk. Later on, we see Nikolaj frantically rushing to Peter’s office to listen to Alessandro Scarlatti’s “Keyboard Sonata in D Minor” so that he may warrant downing a hip flask of vodka. The insatiable brute of addiction has taken over, and the men now feel they must give cultured rationales for their inexplicable urges. This altered motivation becomes most apparent when the film’s diegetic sound is rendered nearly inaudible––the point at which the men realize they have gone too far. They retch, cough, scream and stumble, yet almost all sounds are silenced. Tchaikovsky and Scarlatti feel miles away as the men have breached their own rationalizing efforts.
The film’s diegetic sound contrasts the teachers’ unhealthy intellectualization of alcoholism with the inclusion of “What a Life” by Scarlet Pleasure in its final scene. As the men celebrate the graduatxion of their eldest pupils with shots, beers, and champagne, Martin dances to the supposedly non-diegetic sound of the aforementioned pop tune. The music is revealed as diegetic when the pupils begin chanting the song’s chorus while showering Martin in a deluge of champagne foam (figure 1). It’s safe to say that, within the hierarchy of musical significance, a song like “What a Life” would not be considered as culturally notable as something like “The Tempest.” But the film’s awareness of the music’s anti-intellectual nature aids in its depiction of what a healthy relationship with alcohol looks like. When the men attempt to intellectualize their relationship with alcohol, it leads them down a path of self-destruction; however, when alcohol is understood for its harm, its purposeful consumption contains the power of a rebellious act. Drinking could even be interpreted as a recognition of the temporality of life on earth, a means of accepting the fate that has marked us all from birth. The lyrics of “What a Life” adopt this outlook, emphasizing the importance of living while one is “young and alive,” echoing the Søren Kierkegaard quote that begins the film––“What is youth? A dream. What is love? The content of the dream.” Nothing, alcohol included, can restore the fleeting quality of “youth,” yet the love that one experiences in one’s youth need not contain these same temporal limitations.
Another Round. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, performances by Mads Mikkelson, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, and Lars Ranthe, Nordisk Film, 2020.