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Finding honesty 'In a Better World'

Director films pain with love, decency

“I think my moviemaking comes from my interest in human beings rather than an interest in filmmaking,’’ says Susanne Bier, director of “In a Better World.’’ “I think my moviemaking comes from my interest in human beings rather than an interest in filmmaking,’’ says Susanne Bier, director of “In a Better World.’’ (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 10, 2011

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PARK CITY, Utah — Susanne Bier’s world is already pretty good at the moment, but it’s going to get better. The time is late January, the place the Sundance Film Festival, and the Danish filmmaker has brought her latest morality play, “In a Better World,’’ to Robert Redford’s annual movie bash for its American unveiling.

A week and a half earlier, “World’’ won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film. In a month, it will win an Oscar in the same category. Bier, 50, has been on the international movie circuit’s radar for almost a decade, since 2002’s “Open Hearts’’ brought her peculiarly stormy brand of high-minded melodrama to the rest of the planet. Hollywood has remade one of her films (2004’s “Brodre’’ became 2009’s “Brothers’’) and tapped her for an English-language debut (2007’s “Things We Lost in the Fire’’). Despite the low commercial profile of both those films, she remains a hot commodity in the business: a moviemaker who balances topicality and storytelling. She should be on top of the world.

Instead, she seems tense and preoccupied. Bier is in Park City not just as a filmmaker but as a jury member, and while she can’t discuss the movies in the category she’s judging, the World Dramatic competition, they clearly have unsettled her. “There is a lot of violence and pain in many of the films,’’ she allows, settling into a sofa in an empty classroom at the festival’s Library Center theater. “A lot of social violence. I can’t really say more. I want to but then I feel I should give examples, and I probably shouldn’t.’’

Fair enough, and, in any event, Bier and her fellow jurists, South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (“Mother’’) and New York film curator Rajendra Roy, will ultimately award the Grand Jury Prize to the bleak Swedish family comedy “Happy, Happy.’’ Yet it’s surprising that she’s taken aback, given that her own movies are such riven emotional battlefields.

The original “Brothers’’ is about a returning prisoner of war coping with his actions in Afghanistan and his wife’s attraction to his brother. “After the Wedding’’ (2006) involves long-lost children, terminal disease, and Third World poverty. In “Things We Lost in the Fire,’’ Halle Berry mourns her husband’s death by taking in his oldest friend, now a heroin addict (Benicio del Toro).

Yet when it’s pointed out that much of her cinema is rooted in grief, Bier gives a shake of her luxuriant red mane, narrows her eyes into a brief laser-beam of self-analysis, and demurs. “I’m not really interested in getting to a place of grief,’’ she insists. “I’m interested in facing a dramatic change in someone’s life and understanding how many surprising ways life takes you. For me, grief is a static thing, and my movies have an extremely dynamic sort of movement.

“There’s also a lot of love in my movies,’’ she points out. “In particular, this one is about compassion and about forgiving. And also about how difficult it is to be a decent person in today’s world.’’

“This one’’ — “In a Better World’’ (opening in the Boston area on Friday) — is about ethics and action and evil, and it takes place on several fronts. In rural Kenya, a Danish doctor (Mikael Persbrandt) working for a NGO must decide whether to treat a ruthless warlord (Odiege Matthew) and thus allow him to continue his butchery. Back home in Denmark, the doctor’s bullied son (Markus Rygaard) is befriended by a classmate (William Johnk Juels Nielsen) who’s a budding vigilante. The movie is very much concerned with how a person can confront brutality without becoming a brute oneself.

Says Bier, “It’s very truthful for me to have someone who really wants to do the right thing, who really is a caring, compassionate human being who also is unable to live up to his own standards. In reality most people aren’t as perfect as they want to seem. And maybe there’s more hope in embracing this, addressing it, accepting it. In acknowledging our imperfections and enjoying the good parts.’’

Almost all her films have been written by or with the prolific Anders Thomas Jensen in a collaborative spirit that stops the moment shooting starts. He and Bier begin with a dramatically loaded sequence — “In a Better World’’ had its genesis in a scene Jensen had written about two young boys being interrogated by the police — and proceed from there, leaving themselves open to the chance inspiration.

The warlord subplot, for instance, was based on actual events. “When we were working on the film,’’ Bier says, “we talked with a lot of doctors from Doctors Without Borders, one of whom had a warlord coming in who had been doing this game with his gang — they would ride into villages, find pregnant women, make bets about the sex of the baby, and cut open the women. Oftentimes reality is much worse than what you can put in a movie.’’

Yet there are critics who find the filmmaker’s repeated use of Third World settings to be exploitive, a charge Bier shrugs off. “I guess I strongly feel that we cannot pretend that the Third World is not part of our world,’’ she says. “We cannot say ‘OK, there’s that problem over there, let’s just close our eyes’ — we cannot do that. And also I find it really interesting to show that we are not all that different. Yes, the living circumstances are very different, but the human characteristics, the human traits are very similar.’’

Unlike many successful directors, Bier came to film not as a cineaste but with the sensibility of a designer. After majoring in literature and architecture in college, she moved into set design, photography, and ultimately applied to film school. “I recognized that’s where I needed to be,’’ she says. “I think my moviemaking comes from my interest in human beings rather than an interest in filmmaking.’’

As a result, a scene in a Bier film often begins with a coolly composed establishing shot — a legacy, perhaps, of her architecture studies — before careening into handheld emotional intimacy. The director rarely blocks scenes, instead working out improvisational variations with her actors on the set before looping back to the script. “It enables the actors to behave very naturally,’’ she says. “The mantra on the set is ‘authenticity.’ Does this actually feel authentic?’’

Another word that regularly gets applied to Bier’s work is “melodrama,’’ and perhaps it’s her passion for authenticity that makes her shrink from the term. For her, the word connotes crummy TV soap operas rather than the grand emotions and narrative arcs of classic movie melodramas by directors such as Douglas Sirk. Bier loves Sirk’s movies, actually. She just doesn’t think they have anything to do with her own.

“I don’t like when emotions are forced,’’ the director says. “I don’t like it when you feel that you’re supposed to feel. But if you look at Shakespeare or Greek tragedy, there’s so much drama and they are so colorful, and the sequence of dramatic development is so outrageous. My little films look clean-cut next to those. I don’t think ‘melodrama’ is the right word. I think honesty doesn’t go well with melodrama. I actually think my movies are pretty honest.’’

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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