Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans, John Lennon sang. It could be the tagline for "A Family", one of the two Danish features screening in the main competition at the Berlin Film Festival. The film is directed by Pernille Fischer Christensen, who won the Silver Bear as well as the Best First Feature Film Award in Berlin in 2006 for her first feature, "A Soap".
"We approached it like an investigation – an investigation carried by desire. That's how I like to work. I'm not very goal oriented. I like the process." – Pernille Fischer Christensen
Now Christensen is back with a story that shows the same kind of intimacy as "A Soap" in investigating the emotional bonds between people. While "A Soap" and "Dancers" (2008), her second feature, focused on two erotically entangled people, "A Family" is a portrait of tangled family ties.
At the heart of the story is the relationship between thirty-something Ditte and her father, Rikard Rheinwald, owner of the well-established Rheinwald's Bakery which has been in the family for three generations. Much of the family's identity rests on the story of the German baker who came to Denmark carrying a bag of grain, his son who made the business successful, and finally Rikard under whose stewardship the bakery has become Purveyor to the Royal Danish Court. With quality-consciousness and pride, Rikard has steadily steered the bakery, securing the continued success of the family business.
When we first meet the family, Ditte, a gallery owner, has just received an offer for a job in New York. She is ecstatic at the prospect, and so is her boyfriend, but fate soon crosses their path. Ditte discovers she is pregnant, a poor fit for a job with lots of travel, and she is feeling the pressure to choose between a family and a career.
Then Rikard falls seriously ill, testing his relationship to his favourite daughter, Ditte, and putting his three other children and his second wife, Sanne, through the wringer so thoroughly that they emerge changed.
Identity is a central theme in "A Family", as it was in "A Soap" and "Dancers". Headstrong Rikard wants Ditte to take over the bakery and carry on the Rheinwald brand. Ditte loves her father and has tremendous loyalty to the family business, but she is deeply torn. It's a long way from a gallery to a bakery.
Living people – not characters
Ditte is a contemporary woman facing classic quandaries, and she is part of a contemporary blended family with young half-siblings and a stepmother who's not much older than herself. Christensen takes hand of all these supporting characters, painting vividly detailed portraits of the other family members and showing them as fully rounded people with likable and unlikable qualities, who act wisely or unwisely but love each other at heart. This unconditional love, a powerful undercurrent running through the film, makes the story essentially life affirming even at its dark moments.
The director found it particularly interesting to explore the surprising idiosyncrasies of her characters, their shortcomings and many loose ends.
"I like it if the characters seem a bit ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways – that there's no ultimate answer. It's really important to allow the audience to add to the story themselves and have different opinions about these people and why they act the way they do. We listen to what they are saying, we observe their body language and facial expressions. But how much do we ever really show of what's going on inside? I find it exciting to focus on the unspoken, underlying things that appear in glimpses and cracks."
Intuition and investigation carried by desire were always key to Christensen's work on "A Family". The film grew out of some journal-like texts she wrote some years ago. Though the film isn't autobiographical, it builds on personal material she recovered through the notes.
"I approached the whole thing in a really disorderly way. I dove head first into the material and tried to get a feel for what was interesting," the director says. "Then Kim Fupz Aakeson, the screenwriter, joined the process and we wrote a number of scenes guided solely by what we would like to see ourselves. We wanted to do a film that's open-ended and affectionate and kind of gives you a hug. It hinges on the feeling that 'We have to want to be there.' We worked with the material for a long time like that, without a plot and making no decisions about who the main character would be and so on. We approached it like an investigation – an investigation carried by desire. That's how I like to work. I'm not very goal oriented. I like the process."
Lene Maria Christensen and Jesper Christensen in "A Family". Photo: Rolf Konow
Intuition and investigation also guided Christensen in her work with the actors. Jesper Christensen ("The Bench", "Manslaughter") and Lene Maria Christensen ("Terribly Happy") play the father and daughter (none of the three Christensens are related in real life).
Uncompromising dedication is clearly an attribute that Jesper Christensen shares with his character: to illustrate Rikard's physical decline, the actor lost 16 kilos over six weeks of shooting. We never for a moment doubt that he is Rikard. Lene Maria Christensen plays Ditte in a convincing blend of sensitivity and inner fortitude, reflecting the stubborn willpower that is a central attribute of Jesper Christensen's Rikard. We never doubt the kinship of father and daughter. Both confront life's challenges unsentimentally and with huge integrity – to the point that they sometimes steamroll right over their loved ones without even noticing. We get the sense that they are warm people and we get to like them, even as we witness the effects of their occasional, unintentionally brutal acts on the people in their lives, Ditte's boyfriend, Rikard's young wife, Ditte's sister and others around them. With tremendous precision and expressive power, Pilou Asbæk, Anne Louise Hassing and Line Kruse, respectively, bring these characters to life as living, breathing people.
The director and the actors spent a long time in rehearsals before the shoot, trying to get a handle on the characters, creating a past for them and picturing earth-shattering events in their characters' lives. As the actors collaborated on improvising their characters, Christensen observed their interaction to get a feel for the exciting stories and themes were, then "condensed all that into a stock cube to melt into the script," as she puts it. The thorough preparation created a comfort level between the actors and the director, enabling them to accept the loss of control that Christensen's methods sometimes entail.
"The filming is also marked by a certain amount of intuitive searching, but the direction we're going gets increasingly precise," the director says. "The players don't improvise during the shooting and we know what we want to say in the individual scenes. I try to shoot in sequence as far as possible. In this film there was a practical reason for it, because Jesper Christensen lost weight over the six weeks of shooting. But shooting in sequence also has the advantage for me that I can rewrite upcoming scenes on set. I like to keep working on the script and leaving the doors open. My crew jokes that my motto is, 'We'll see what happens.' But that's how I am. If it rains we need red, and if the sun shines we need blue. We'll figure that out when we get to it."
Documentary feel in 'scope
"A Family" is shot by Jakob Ihre, a Swedish DP with a background in documentaries. Christensen was impressed by Ihre's work on Reprise (2006), a Norwegian feature directed by Joachim Trier, and saw a visual intuition and fragility there that she wanted for her story about the Rheinwald family. She considers it a huge quality that Ihre has worked in the documentary genre.
"Documentary DPs are good at staying on their toes and paying attention. They are nimble, flexible and know how to seize the moment, which is important when you work the way I do," Christensen says. "I never storyboard. Instead, I spend a lot of time talking with the DP, watching films, building up common references and discussing the things we like."
While its visual style is naturalistic and documentary inspired, "A Family" is a well-orchestrated feature in widescreen 'scope. It's Christensen's first time working in the format. "We chose widescreen because we wanted room to include the whole family in the frame. We wanted this to enhance the feeling that the characters are tied together and don't stand apart. Specifically, if someone is in close-up, say, we also see other characters in the frame or hear their voices. Doing this creates a sense of intensity and intimacy about their relations," she says.
For the director, it was essential to have the film look full of life. For that reason, too, she decided to make it a summer film.
"There is sun, heat, light shimmering and reflecting, moving up and down. We worked with organic materials like suede, leather and textured fabrics. We painted with a big palette, representing Copenhagen as a city full of history and Rheinwald's house as a warm, safe place, a family cave. Everything is vibrant, everything breathes. It's all part of what makes "A Family" such a life-affirming story," Christensen says.