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EIFF 2014: Sorrow and Joy

Sorrow and Joy (“Sorg og glæde” Nils Malmros, 2013)

It is an unfathomable tragedy: film-maker Johannes (Jakob Cedergren) returns home one night to discover his wife Signe (Helle Fagralid) has killed their infant daughter during a psychotic episode. This event (drawn from the real-life experiences of director Nils Malmros) forms the basis of the story of Sorrow and Joy, in which Johannes sets about protecting his wife from the Danish legal system while simultaneously exploring his own culpability in the tragedy.  As he struggles to come to terms with the event, he describes their relationship from first meeting, courtship, marriage, and finally the anguished days following their daughter’s murder.

Reflecting as it does so closely the director’s past, the narrative seems at times maddeningly solipsistic: cinema-as-therapy. And yet Johannes is a compelling enough character to warrant such lengthy naval-gazing, by turns controlling and distant, loving and compassionate. Digressions detailing the film Johannes is currently making initially seem incidental, a narcissistic consideration of the role of the director, but ultimately serve to illustrate the tectonic tensions in Johannes’ marriage, setting the conditions for Signe’s break-down. As Johannes, Cedergren is measured and intelligent, his iciness contrasting well with Fagralid’s warm, fragile school-teacher Signe, who is utterly heart-breaking as the unwitting killer.

 

A Danish sensibility throughout proceedings may seem alien for the UK audience: response to the tragedy seems preternaturally rational, where other nations might react to such events with moral panic and salacious interest. This “Danish-ness” is never more apparent than when Johannes is presented by a signed petition from the parents of Signe’s students insisting she is allowed to return to teach their children, despite currently awaiting trial. The film is anchored by such demonstrations of humanity, preventing it from feeling exploitative, despite the heightened subject matter. It may tell a tale of unthinkable sorrow, but Sorrow and Joy is a deeply sincere testament to the hope and strength we find by offering one another love.

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