Silent Heart: family issues painted on a hard canvas
by Vladan Petkovic
- Bille August is competing at San Sebastián with an intense family drama set against a backdrop of a tough subject matter
Bille August’s 16th feature film, Silent Heart [+see also:
film profile], world-premiered in the Official Selection of the 62nd San Sebastián Film Festival. The drama, which features a tough subject matter as the starting point for a story about complicated family issues, is engaging, carefully executed and excellently acted.
Three generations of a family gather for Esther’s (played by Ghita Nørby) final weekend – she has a terminal illness, a type of sclerosis, which can only get worse. It has already paralysed her left hand and makes it very hard for her to walk, and when it is advanced, she would end up as not much more than a vegetable. She has decided to put an early end to it, with the help of her doctor husband, Poul (Morten Grunwald), who knows just the right combination of medicines to euthanise her painlessly.
The whole family have agreed to it, including their daughters Heidi (Paprika Steen) and Sanne (Danica Curcic), who bring their respective husband, Michael (Jens Albinus), and boyfriend, Dennis (Pilou Asbaek), to the gathering in the house by a lake. But old, unresolved problems resurface, including Sanne’s attempted suicide.
The chamber setting of the house lends the film intensity such as the tough theme requires, but this is not a hard film to watch. Esther’s physical impairment does not look repulsive; it is the anticipation of what is coming to her that is terrible and makes you understand her reasons. And the reasons against it – or rather, the excuses that Sanne and Heidi come up with – seem not only futile, but almost laughably trivial when you look at the big picture.
Euthanasia and its moral and legal implications are not the subject matter of the film; it is a background on which family problems are painted, intertwined and building upon each other at the hands of August and writer Christian Torpe, who infuses the story with some much-needed humour – particularly in the scene where the whole family, including Heidi and Michael’s teenage son, and excluding Sanne, is smoking marijuana, courtesy of pothead Dennis.
This kind of film, tackling such boldly presented matters of life and death, could easily slip into soap-opera territory, but it takes a director of August’s stature and actors like Steen and Nørby – and Albinus in a delicious mini-role, surprising to anyone who remembers him from Lars von Trier’s films – to avoid it. Steen’s legacy hailing from Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (Festen) hints at an amusing and, ironically, profound connection between the two family stories.
Veteran cinematographer Dirk Brüel does an excellent job with interiors and provides the one particularly dramatic exterior scene with exceptional atmosphere, apparently only using natural lighting.