Beyond normalcy

Niels Arden Oplev on portraying mental illness in Rose

by Jennie Kermode

Sofie Gråbøl as Inger (based on Maren Elisabeth) and Lene Maria Christensen as Ellen (based on Kirsten) in Rose
Sofie Gråbøl as Inger (based on Maren Elisabeth) and Lene Maria Christensen as Ellen (based on Kirsten) in Rose Photo: Martin Dam Kristensen

A warm-hearted, often comedic drama which centres on a coach trip to Paris, Niels Arden Oplev’s latest film, Rose, is his most deeply personal work to date. it’s based on incidents in the lives of his two older sisters: Maren Elisabeth, who is schizophrenic, and Kirsten, who has been her lifelong carer. There’s much more to the two of them than that, of course, and it’s that which makes the film so unusual. We are all used to negative depictions of mental illness in cinema. Here it’s just one aspect of life – a challenging one, but one that doesn’t overwhelm the richness of their other experiences or the importance of their bond.

“I know that most times in cinema, mental illness is portrayed in a very violent way or something like that,” he told me when we met. “I really wanted to make a film that would show a completely different character burdened with mental illness. And, of course, I wanted to make a film that would show how extraordinary a person my sister is, even though she's been suffering with this for decades.”

I tell him that I love the fact that the heroine is depicted as an intelligent, capable person, just one who is dealing with additional burdens. These affect her in ways that many viewers will be surprised by – for instance, she’s afraid to walk over any significant difference because she doesn’t know how she’ll cope if she gets tired. The little details add a lot of depth to the film. Did they come from research, or simply from years of observation?

“Well, when I got the idea to start writing about this trip that took place in real life, I interviewed my sister, whose real name is Maren Elisabeth – Inger in the film,” he says. “When I first talked to her it was quite limited, what she could remember. But luckily, Kirsten – that's Ellen in the film – and my brother in law have very good memories. I started writing quite long ago, in 2015, and I basically wrote a version of the script every year in between doing a lot of other stuff.

Inger gets to know her fellow passengers
Inger gets to know her fellow passengers Photo: Martin Dam Kristensen

“Of course, a film about a schizophrenic woman and her sister is not the easiest thing to finance. But they really gave me a lot of details from the real trip, and then, of course, having lived with my sister for my whole childhood and youth, and seen her many times since then, there's a lot of details about her that are just naturally there. In order to make it a dramatic film, a film entertaining also, even though that's not its main purpose – it’s really to show all these aspects of her character – I did move things around.

“There were things that didn't happen on the trip but happened in other parts of her life, like the hedgehog in the rest area. That happened when she was younger and had gotten sick, but it's such an extraordinary element of what you would call the normalcy, the so-called normalcy versus un-normalcy, and it really is about perception and how rational people see the world to a certain extent. You could say they damage the world a lot, whereas people who have other senses see other things.

“Interestingly enough, the line that Inger says when she, hard pressed by the whole group, has to defend why they can't move on with this dead hedgehog, and she says it's not dignified, that really comes from my father. He was an extremely well read farmer in the north of Denmark. He had certain philosophies about how animals and people should be treated, and how you dealt with them. He mixed Christianity and all these old Viking beliefs, I think.”

It definitely influenced him as a creative artist, to be around somebody who saw the world so differently, he says – though he points out that he’s also quite different himself, and a bit eccentric. He grew up with a deep admiration for Maren Elisabeth, he says.

“When she was young and before she got sick, I was a child and she was a teenager in the Seventies. She knew all the new music and her friends were those hippies that wandered far enough out in the country to settle somewhere near where my mum and dad's farm was. I also had a teacher that ended up being a very famous children’s books writer. He was extremely different and out of the beat generation, and definitely struggled. I mean, he was on one side a genius storyteller, and on the other side, he struggled with mental health issues. He basically died of alcohol when he was in his thirties. But he was an absolutely fantastic human being.

“When I grew up – it’s strange when you look back at it – there were, what do you call them? I guess now you would call them homeless people, but they didn't see it that way back then. They were called vagabonds or drifters, and they were very proud. They knew my mum and dad were friendly to people like that. And they would sleep on the farm – they would basically sleep out by the cows. My mum would invite them in to dinner and stuff like that. And they would tell ghost stories so scary that we were shivering underneath the table. It was a very different time.”

I tell him that something I found quite revolutionary about the film is simply that it allows Inger to have a romantic storyline to make friends on her own initiative. That's something that we never seem to see mentally ill people doing in cinema, at least in a healthy way.

Inger on the Pont des Arts
Inger on the Pont des Arts Photo: Roger Do Minh

He nods. “The whole thing with the cab driver, of course, I have expanded that. But in real life, they met this cab driver and Maren Elisabeth was normally afraid of driving because she was afraid that something would make her jump out the car. But she sat on the front seat and talked to this cab driver in France and my sister and brother in law sat in the back. They had no idea what they were saying. They were just yakking away about all kinds of stuff in French, and they had no idea what was going on. They were kind of put on the back seat. There's such a beauty to that. This is my most beautiful film in a lot of ways. And I think that the poetic qualities of Paris kind of lift the film and in some ways, lift Inger.

“It's like she becomes less down when she comes back to Paris. It's like there's more moments where she's on the upside and fewer on the downside. And that, of course, is part of the whole underlying theme of ‘you can't judge a book by its cover.’ But the other thing is, when it comes to life quality, how do we measure it? Is it an ideal goal to have as long a life as possible? Because when it comes to somebody like Inger, that might mean that you have to take a lot of medicine, that you don't go anywhere. You don't do anything that would be dangerous, to challenge you or disturb you.

“The burden of the mother character is to carry that. We say in Denmark ‘to wrap them into cotton’ so nothing can go wrong. And whether, of course, Ellen is ready to take the challenges of bringing a person like Inger out into the big world, knowing also that it can go wrong. When Inger, in the very end of the film, is in the bus with Ellen, and they're on the way home, she says a key thing in the film. She says, ‘I just want to tell you that if I had died in Paris, it would still have been a good trip. And that is the key to the film.

“It might sound harsh, but can we define life and the quality of life? I'm thinking, like my teacher that only became 37 years old. Can we define his life as less valuable? Because maybe what he experienced in those years was so much more than somebody who had lived until they were 90. It is a kind of existential issue.”

He’s telling that very vivid story, and yet at the same time, he has to balance that with the story of Ellen and what the whole thing means to her and what it's like to be a carer for somebody like Inger. How did that work? It was a challenge, he acknowledges.

“Of course, I had many lengthy talks with my sister Kirsten. I think it was an advantage that the writing process took so long because one of the first things I did when I started writing was to ask Kirsten to be the ambassador for Maren Elisabeth. I don't trust myself once I'm writing. I just want to write the most powerful, best film. That might not necessarily be the best thing for my mentally suffering sister. So I wanted Kirsten in between to say, ‘This is not going to be good for her if you write that in.’ There are some very tough things in the film, of course, and all of them happened sometime in her life. So that was a careful balance.

“But, of course, in all those conversations, there was a lot of stuff about how it really has been through the years, and the struggles Kirsten had with our mum about who took care of Maren Elisabeth. My mother wanted to dictate my two sisters’ lives. I managed to escape to Copenhagen and later to the US, so I was out of reach of my mom in that sense. So it fell on Kirsten a lot.

Rose poster
Rose poster

“Of course, Sofie Gråbøl, who plays Inger, gets a lot of attention. But Lene Maria Christensen, that plays Ellen, the longer the film has kind of run, she has started gaining attention. Her performance is not as in your face, but it's an extremely well balanced performance that she does.”

And then there are many other characters in the film who have to keep pace with everything that's happening between and around the sisters. It's a wonderfully atmospheric portrait of a coach tour.

“I didn't participate in this trip,” he says. “I think when I was in the middle of the second draft. I kind of realised that the boy was probably me, asking questions about everything. But they all developed. I mean, the wise headmaster, he existed in reality. He was quite annoying. But of course, he's really more written in a way that I wanted. A character that is scared of the un-normalcy, and therefore overreacts in situations. In some ways, he represents normalcy. Normalcy with no room for anything else. And God knows there's a lot of people like that.

“I think that we all sometimes have that person inside of us. Even though I have a sister that's mentally ill, I can feel situations where it's like, ‘Oh, I can't deal with this. I really can't deal with this person today.’ So he was not a difficult character to write. And I think he represents somebody who comes off as being passive aggressive in his remarks and stuff, and it's all rooted in angst. It's kind of like when you have a dog that barks, and you say it's fear aggression – the same expression goes for a lot of people, I must say.

“Of course, it works really well in screenplay that his son is completely different and the mum is the diplomat between the openness of the son and the angst of the father. In some ways, the boy functions really well, in his curiosity and his acceptance. He's extremely accepting to Inger, and not afraid, and kind of curious. And this just functions really well in the film. He's like the bridge between the two worlds.”

Rose is screening in select US cinemas from 15 November.

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