"A woman shouldn't find herself, she should find a husband." The line is directed at Marie Krøyer, in Bille August's film of the same name. The film is set in an age when it only seemed natural that a woman's identity should be anchored in her husband. And what a husband to be anchored in: Marie was married to one of the most successful and respected Danish artists ever, P.S. Krøyer.
"When Nordic films are successful, it's usually because they have a certain look. Because they are rooted in a culture, a light, a filmic look."
The Skagen painters is the name of a group of painters in the late 1880s who settled on the northernmost tip of Denmark attracted by the unique light in this harsh, remote area where two seas collide. They are a piece of Danish history. In their prodigious output and approach to art, they became an important element of the modern breakthrough.
In this age of transition from traditional agriculture to industrialism, a new awareness arose challenging woman's place in society. Marie Krøyer became a painful case in point. A painter herself, she has always been better known as her husband's lovely model. Life with her genius but mad husband – P.S. Krøyer was bipolar – put a strain not only on her creative urges but also on her roles as wife and mother. Marie wilted in the shadow of her husband's talent.
It was this aspect of Marie Krøyer's story that originally caught Bille August's attention.
Trapped in a dilemma
"I have long been fascinated by the Skagen painters as a whole and by the phenomenon that so many brilliant painters settled in Skagen at the time," the director says. "I was researching their history when I came across a biography of Marie Krøyer, "The Passion of Marie" by Anastassia Arnold, and found a good starting point for a story.
"I was captivated by the portrait of this woman who in her day was the most admired woman in Denmark – for her beauty and because her husband, who was such a brilliant painter, made her portrait. But I wanted to get behind the facade."
In 1902, to escape P.S. Krøyer's exhausting, all-consuming illness, Marie goes away on holiday, with her daughter Vibeke, and meets a Swedish composer, Hugo Alfvén. They fall madly in love.
"Marie was a woman of her age and trapped in a dilemma: Should she stay with her wonderful but mentally ill husband, who was also much older than she, or should she follow her heart and pay the price?
"You have to keep in mind that, before television and supermarket tabloids, she was the most feted woman in Denmark, because of her beauty and very much because of the status she enjoyed. So she went from being the most admired woman to being the most hated, the most reviled. She paid a huge price for living out her love."
Because of the many harrowing and life-changing choices she made, she became the symbol of a woman who deliberately went against conventions. For August this was perfectly in line with his approach to Marie Krøyer and the subject of the Skagen painters. "The picturesque setting, the abundance of good painters in this period, became more of a backdrop for the chamber play. What interested me was the interpersonal drama. I was especially fascinated by the portrayal of Marie Krøyer who pays such a high price for the choices she makes. But she also profits from her experiences. She matures. Through all her ordeals, she keeps her head up, she grows and she learns.
"Today, women still have to make some tough decisions. Tougher than men's, I think. Because women still have to choose between a career, family and love. That makes Marie's story relevant today."
For August, it's important that a story is universal in a way that transcends time, nationality, gender – all the filters through which a film can be experienced.
"I always ask myself this when I start a period film: What can it teach us today? This story has so much to tell modern people."
"Marie Krøyer" Photo: Rolf Konow
The Nordic light
This is the first time in 25 years that Bille August has shot a film in Denmark. That's how long it's been since he bowled over the world with "Pelle the Conqueror". Winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes, a Golden Globe and a Best Foreign Language Oscar, "Pelle" launched August's international career. After the Bergman-scripted "The Best Intentions", which earned August another Palme d'Or, the director cemented his name with a series of adaptations, including "Jerusalem", "The House of the Spirits", "Smilla's Sense of Snow" and "Les Misérables". His last film, "Goodbye Bafana", chronicles the relationship between Nelson Mandela and his jailer. How does it feel to return to his national heritage?
"It's been a huge pleasure to do a Danish story, in the Danish language, with Danish actors. Being away for so long also allowed me to approach matters like casting with a particularly objective eye."
Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, who stars as Marie Krøyer, broke through playing an investigative reporter in "Borgen". The political TV series is also an international hit, but that didn't impact on August's decision.
"I saw an episode of "Borgen", but it was her screen test that convinced me. I wanted to find someone with a certain portrait likeness to Marie, who radiated the same strength and willpower but also had a certain fragility. Birgitte has all those assets."
While Sørensen shines as the strong but beleaguered Marie, she had to share the director's attention with light itself. The unique Nordic light holds a powerful fascination for August.
"The most important thing for me, actually, in doing a Danish story was getting to work with the Nordic light," he says. "The unique Nordic look is linked to light. Dramatic seasonal changes are part of our identity. We are extroverted in summer, and in winter we isolate ourselves. That affects us as a people, and has for thousands of years. It's reflected in our literature, painting, music and film."
In fact, that a film is rooted in a specific culture, like this one, in the Scandinavian, matters a great deal in terms of how a film is received abroad, August says.
"In my experience, when we make films that have a very Nordic look, we are also being very international. The Nordic is our identity, after all. You rarely succeed making films that are trying to look like American mainstream. When Nordic films are successful, it's usually because they have a certain look. Because they are rooted in a culture, a light, a filmic look."
Light was also at the heart of P.S. Krøyer's art. His masterful control and evocation of light lift his paintings out of the apparent banality of his subject matter. With Dirk Brüel, his director of photography, August spent a long time studying Krøyer's paintings in order to recreate the same sense of light – a challenge that had to be solved to stay true to the visual universe that the characters inhabit.
Love as a driving force
It's obvious to August that P.S. Krøyer was a truly great artist. However, paradoxically because of his success, like the other Skagen painters, he became a national treasure, his paintings reproduced on everything from cookie tins to posters and plates. As a result, the Skagen painters have often been brushed aside as "poster artists." But viewing the actual paintings should convince anyone that these artists were more than virtuoso technicians – they had a soulfulness and a passion that can't be denied. The same is clear from Marie story.
The two men who shape Marie's life use her as a muse and a model. She is the mother of their children. They draw their strength from her. Love is the driving force of their work as artists. August recognises this, though he would never compare his own work as a film director to that of a painter.
"Filmmaking is different because it's a lot more organised. I have to stay extremely disciplined. I can't afford to live a bohemian life, as a lot of artists probably can."
Signe Leick Jensen, one of his two producers on the film and selected as Danish Producer on the Move in Cannes this year, describes August as extremely focused. When he is working, he is able to shut everything else out. The director leads a socially ascetic life when he is shooting.
"It's about excluding all unnecessary things," August says. "When I work on a film, I try to cleanse my life and only deal with what's relevant. I focus on my work, see very few people, preferably just my family. I don't watch TV or read the paper. I shut out the world. I don't want to be distracted. You only get that one shot when you're making a film, and you have to aim and hit the mark as well as you can when you are fortunate enough to get a lot of money to work with.
"I'm not particularly sociable on a shoot. I don't see the actors privately, I don't want to listen to gossip. It's my way of getting closer to the essence, a way of refining my expression and getting to the core."
He is happy to share that core with Hugo Alfvén and P.S. and Marie Krøyer. The core is love.
"Love overshadows everything else. It could be erotic love or it could be your love for your children. It could also be the passion that has to do with art, of working to express yourself. That's how I relate to life. My understanding of life goes through love and through art."