A Family

A Family


Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

If one function of art is an Aristotelian cathartic experience, a purging of tensions and emotions through which one may develop a deeper awareness of one’s humanity, A Family certainly gives it a hefty crack. Pernille Fischer Christensen’s film clearly moved some of the audience in the screening I attended, judging by the director’s Q&A afterwards. Such was the emotional tumult, it seemed, some eager people could barely get a comprehensible question out. An appreciable compliment of sorts.

Copenhagen-based Ditte has just been offered her dream job, sourcing and curating art in New York. It’s the life-changing opportunity she’s been working for and a great chance for her to jet off with her artist boyfriend Peter. Soon they’re making optimistic plans, until the less than dreamy side of life challenges Ditte with some agonising decisions. First, she discovers she’s pregnant and then her ageing patriarch of a father, Rikard, falls seriously ill.

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He is a master baker and purveyor to the royal court, who holds his work above all else except, perhaps, his favourite daughter. He’s a traditionalist keen to see the family’s generations-old baking business continue and thrive. As his incurable condition worsens, Ditte becomes torn between wanting her dream, the prospect of her own new family and the burden of responsibility to carry on her proud family’s heritage and livelihood.

From beginning to end there are moments of humour and tenderness, but being with this family is a far from fun time. Pulling us through are the two estimable leads. Lene Maria Christensen’s (Terribly Happy) Ditte is a rounded character who convinces us of her inner and outer turmoils and she can just about counterpoint her father. Jesper Christensen’s (Storm, Quantum Of Solace) Rikard is a commanding force of nature. He towers over his family, even when bedridden and monosyllabic. Jesper is totally committed to the role, boldly hiding most sympathetic traits beneath a steely determination and a caustic disposition. He is rudely dismissive of those he feels superior to, at work and at home, with alarming ferocity.

Pernille Fischer filmed the story chronologically so that Jesper could lose some 16kg in weight as Rikard succumbs to his illness. The harrowing physical transformation is matched step for step by his degrading temperament and spirit and mounting frustration and fear. His performance is the centrifugal force around which everyone revolves, culminating in a visceral depiction of a family enduring the nightmare of terminal illness.

The film squares up to our ancient villain, mortality. Ditte, in particular, faces death in almost every aspect of her life. Her job, her relationships, her father, her family, her old self. We see her dealing with not knowing what may follow, that itching dread of taking on something you simply don’t want to and letting a dream wither away, the uncertainty of a life after these ‘deaths’. Out of these, of course, she must find rebirth, a coming to terms with mortality. At it’s heart is the understanding and fearful lack of control of life’s transience. So, it is a journey from time immemorial, played out in a contemporary drama with sensitivity and an eye that will not flinch from the pain that is involved.

Pernille Fischer Christensen co-wrote partly based on her own experiences, which surely accounts for the empathy the script holds. Her direction is unfussy and unhurried, sometimes finding frames from the natural environment, but often as if just watching, observing the family. It’s a figurative standpoint that reflects the fact that she offers no pat solutions for Ditte, or anyone else. She has to live through it and not every question can be answered.

Perhaps the most significant transfiguration she observes is the idea of the modern family itself. Ditte is a woman of this generation, dearly loved by a father in many ways from a different age and there’s a tragic undercurrent of the baton just being dropped between them. What place for the traditional family in this day and age? Again, Pernille offers no answer, but perhaps it’s where it’s always been, somewhere between the old and new.

Reviewed on: 01 Nov 2010
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A Danish woman's planned move to New York is complicated by the discovery that she is pregnant and her father is dying.
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Director: Pernille Fischer Christensen

Writer: Kim Fupz Aakeson, Pernille Fischer Christensen

Starring: Jesper Christensen, Lene Maria Christensen, Johan Pilou Asbæk, Anne Louise Hassing, Line Kruse

Year: 2010

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: Denmark


London 2010

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