Interconnected stories, family secrets, dead or absent parents, broken relationships, emotional distress, and people struggling to reconcile the stubbornness of their ideals with the harsh nature of their realities — these are the recurrent themes in the works of Susanne Bier.
Danish auteur Susanne Bier is the greatest female director working today.
There, I said it. And why do I have to qualify my statement by pointing out that she is a female director — why can’t she just be one of the greatest directors working today? Well, I would argue that she is. But female directors often don’t get a fair shake. Let’s be honest. It’s a man’s world out there, especially when it comes to directing and producing films. Also, while female directors are just as capable of honing their own unique styles as their male counterparts are, they often have a harder time expanding their horizons outside of the niche they build for themselves. Hence we have Sofia Coppola seemingly lost inside the dreamy world of privileged princesses, Nicole Holofcener quite pleased sticking to her astute dissections of bi-coastal bourgeois guilt, and glass-ceiling breaker Kathryn Bigelow hellbent on directing almost every film as if it was a personal f-you to her ex-husband James Cameron and all the big boys out there who think women can’t direct from a man’s point of view.
Meanwhile, male contemporaries of Bier’s like Lars Von Trier or Joe Wright create visuals just as experimental as Bier but have consistently applied their signature avant-garde styles to films across genres and outside of any niche (though one could make an argument that lately Von Trier has been trapped inside his own personal hell). Wright’s ability to put his stamp on films as seemingly disparate as Pride & Prejudice and Hanna is something no female director I know of has been able to do (which isn’t to say they can’t).
All that aside, I’ve never met a Bier film I didn’t like…a lot. In many ways she does for family melodramas what Christopher Nolan has done for crime thrillers. In fact, she seems to enjoy repeatedly killing husbands (see plotlines below) with as much relish as Nolan enjoys killing wives.
Oh, to sit these two down for a session…imagine the psychological hang-ups one could uncover! Like Nolan, Bier uses her intertwining story arcs and meticulously detailed mise-en-scene to add layers upon layers of complexities to her films. Uncannily she is able to jab at the heart of a moment with a simple quick edit or close-up where lesser directors would fumble with ways to tap into that intimacy.
In other ways, her work rivals that of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, as in films like Brodre, After the Wedding, and In a Better World (which beat out Inarritu’s own Biutiful for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars) she has shed light on the often calamitous ways in which wars, globalization and politics tear at the fabric of family life.
Others have compared her ability to coax seemingly off-the-cuff emotions from her actors to that of Mike Leigh.
Like all great directors, Bier’s influences are legion. One gets an underlying spirit of Bergman in her often frenetic and decidedly modern melodrama. Along with Von Trier and Thomas Vintergberg, she spearheaded the Dogme 95 movement. One could argue that her 2002 film Open Hearts is the pinnacle of that movement and the closest thing to a perfect example of what a film could achieve if it adhered to the Dogme 95 rules. There she allowed the style to compliment and enhance the substance, where so many other filmmakers have often let their aesthetics overwhelm the story and characters. Never in a Bier film will she allow her characters to drown in her style, and her style is always in service of gaining intimacy and insight. And unlike some of her contemporaries (both male and female), she is able to create strong, multi-dimensional and internally conflicted characters of both sexes.
Sadly for Bier, if she is known at all to American audiences, she is probably known only for directing the underrated 2007 film, Things We Lost in the Fire. Though not without its faults, it was unfairly dismissed upon release as an artsy Lifetime Movie of the Week, even though it featured stand out performances from Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro. Bier, like always, worked from the heart, and her direction of Del Toro resulted in one of the most humanistic and uplifting portraits of overcoming drug addiction ever put to screen. In 2009, Bier’s 2004 film Brodre was remade as an overly melodramatic Natalie Portman vehicle, Brothers. At the very least it may have increased her profile in America. Then just this February she won an Oscar for In a Better World, which is currently playing in art houses in the states. In grand Academy irony, she won her Oscar for the weakest of her films, but hopefully the big win will open up more doors for Bier.
I wouldn’t mind seeing Bier take another stab at making a film in Hollywood (apparently a comedy/drama called All You Need is Love and a remake of French thriller called Rapt are in the works – way to break the mold!), though I would never want her to abandon her Danish roots and stop making her signature films there as well. All of her films to date have had contemporary settings, so perhaps a venture back in time to do a period piece would be an interesting place to see her apply her style.
Whatever Bier tackles next, I look forward to it as her consistent quality is one calling card that makes her stand out from the pack.
Below are 5 Bier Essentials:
- After the Wedding (2006) – 9/10 – This globe-hopping tale about a man (Bier regular Mads Mikkelsen) torn between family strife in Denmark and running an orphanage in India grabs you from the opening scene and never let’s go. A haunting music score and superb editing supplement Bier’s signature moves: casually eliciting great performances from her cast and effortlessly weaving a complex story rife with human drama.
- Open Hearts (2002) – 9/10 – The ultimate Dogme film weaves the story of a young woman (the beautifully Naomi Watts-esque Sonja Richter) coping with her newly quadriplegic boyfriend while getting caught up with the husband (Mikkelsen) of the woman who accidentally ran her boyfriend over with her car. Beyond the style, Bier proves a master at creating films that are both heartbreaking and uplifting.
- Things We Lost in the Fire (2007) – 8/10 – Just about everything translates stateside in Bier’s first Hollywood film, which contains the most restrained performance of Halle Berry’s career and a knock-out turn from Benicio Del Toro as the drug-addicted friend of Berry’s recently deceased husband.
- Brodre (2004) – 8/10 – The beautiful and austere Connie Nielsen gives the performance of a lifetime, all tight coils and heartbreak, as the woman who erroneously thinks her soldier husband has died and then takes emotional refuge with his troubled brother.
- In a Better World (2010) – 7/10 – Let’s put one thing aside – Inarritu’s Biutful should’ve taken the Oscar over this. In many ways this is Bier’s Babel…an ambitious film not quite fully realized. With the exception of the sustained close-ups on faces, Bier has abandoned almost all of her Dogme 95 aesthetics. Her tale of global bullying is didactic and not as effortlessly compelling as her previous films but still contains strong performances, raises some interesting moral quandaries, and boasts superb cinematography.
Written by David H. Schleicher
So who do you think is the greatest female director working today?
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Intriguing article. Have to admit I haven’t seen any of the Bier films you listed. Does this make me a bad feminist? Better add some to my Netflix queue.
Get a case of beer, and watch a boatload of Bier films next weekend from Netflix. Beligian beers go really well with her Danish films. –DHS
Ha! Good suggestion. My reviews would probably all be THIS IS THE BEST MOVIE EVER.
I must admit I had a few drinks while watching Open Hearts. Her movies really do work quite well on a buzz. –DHS
UPDATE: I’ve recently been introduced to the work of British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. In both Red Road and Fish Tank, she has proven to be most adept at crafting seering and intimate character studies where hope and redemption arise out of self-destruction. She’s like a grittier Susanne Bier by way of Atom Egoyan. She one’s to watch – next up she will try to show some range by tackling an adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
Excellent article, I will definitely have to watch some of her films now.
Make sure you check out her earlier films (Open Hearts and After the Wedding are her best works IMO). Bier’s quality has declined a bit with her last few films. I’m hoping she has a breakthrough with her adaptation of the novel Serena (ironically just the type of grim period piece I suggested she tackle), but I’m worried – the film’s release has been delayed and there are rumors of reshoots. Could be a disaster.
Thanks for the tips.