The beginning of a film often teaches us how to watch that particular movie. What to expect and how to enjoy the story Some movies are quite straightforward in their storytelling. They remove all the extra fat from the plot and just plunge us into the action. The new Swedish film A Day and a Half, by debutant director Fares Fares, is never interested in setting up characters or the backstory. It kicks off right in the middle of the plot. There is a thrill to this kind of approach to narrative. And surely, the audience is hooked. At least I was. But is this the only vision through which the film could have delivered its maximum impact?
A Day and a Half begins with the tension of a live wire. A man walks into a hospital to speak to his ex-wife, who works there as a nurse. The man is a fellow named Artan Kelmendi. His wide eyes and frantic behavior immediately make us feel that he has arrived as an agent of chaos. His face tells us that he doesn’t exactly know what he is doing. He just knows that he has one objective in mind, and the rest is up to the circumstances. His ex-wife, Louise Bremer, is a lamb that is on the verge of being slaughtered by Artan. But is he the butcher everyone thinks he is? There is a third party who comes in and becomes the heart of the film. Artan takes Louise hostage, and Lukas, a local cop, comes to the hospital to negotiate with Artan. He is willing to help Artan only if he promises that he will not do anything irrational.
A Day and a Half behaves like a thriller in most parts. Having the unpredictable quality of Dog Day Afternoon, this film is also based on a true story. The only difference is that there is no bank here, and Artan didn’t come to rob a place. He simply wanted to get Louise to bring Cassandra back to him. Cassandra is their daughter, and Artan, the father, thinks he was cheated by the entire Bremer family, which is why, after the divorce, her custody was given to Louise even though she is unfit to raise her. Louise had an episode of psychosis where she did things to Cassandra that no mother would do in her sane mind. At this point, the thriller became a family drama, where things had just come to a cul-de-sac for Artan, and in his desperation, he knew nothing but to get hold of a gun and barge into the hospital. Now, he wants to meet Cassandra. His plans are only known to him, so the tension never totally subsides.
All this happened in Lukas’ presence. Calm and composed, Lukas handled the situation like a heart surgeon. He was attentive and emotionally wired for Artan’s state. The film morphed into a road movie, and Artan and Louise were being escorted by Lukas in a cop car. The problem with the transition is clear. We don’t know who Artan is. Is his resolve to see Cassandra so great as to endure this nerve-wracking turn of events involving the media and the cops? The anticipation that the film might go somewhere unexpected soon died, and reviving it seemed impossible. The film turned into an emotional drama, and there was no turning back. It doesn’t seem like a mistake, though. The film was always heading there. The film that started with Artan’s entry into the hospital was now not interested in him but in Louise, Lukas, Cassandra, and the Bremer family. It’s understandable that these choices had to be made. How long can you follow a man whose motivations need to be explained via several characters, and that too very quickly?
There is a subtle commentary on xenophobia in the film. Artan is an Arab, who immigrated from Albania and married Louise, a Swedish woman. Louise’s family had their reservations, which morphed into complete hatred for Artan. The film deals with the subject in a very sporadic manner. But it was enough to drive home the point that racial stereotypes and xenophobia are still being propagated by the media. When the film got really dialogue-heavy and attention shifted to Lukas, another subtext started to emerge. Artan and Louise’s marriage was like hell on earth. He was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and he wanted Louise to go down with him. But is this love still ideal? Is there something to be learned from this family? Lukas sure did learn to face his past. So, does this mean that love is what matters, no matter what form it takes? The film doesn’t have the symbolism, but if we see Louise and Artan as one vertex of the triangle, with Louise’s parents and Lukas being the other two vertices, one metaphor that sprung up was that Artan and Louise represented the new multicultural world order, well supported by the liberal order represented by Lukas. Louise’s parents represent a conservative point of view. And if this metaphor is taken to its conclusion, then the film is clear as to what end we are heading to. There can be love and understanding between Louise and Artan, but getting back together again is the rub.
The performances by the actors are great, given that the dialogue is not well written. It seemed as if the film needed to offer us some explanation as to what was happening and hoped that the exposition-like dialogues would just slide under the radar and give some context as to why Artan is the way he is. The lines seemed forced, as there were scenes in the movie that were so imbued with a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia that they warranted just a constant screaming sound. No dialogue could do them justice. Lukas’ character remains the most memorable, even though he wasn’t the main focus. Fares Fares, who is a seasoned actor, played the role himself, probably because this was an ‘in’ into sensing the couple’s volatile lives and bringing the cop’s goodness to the screen.
A Day and a Half feels like it wanted to explore its themes more in depth but stayed confined within the frame that is often created by the ‘based on a true story’ tag. This tag was a burden, and the film was happy to undertake it, maybe because it fueled the zeal with which the actors performed. Fares, as a director, seems interested in telling simple stories with a lightning in a bottle vibe to the performances. All he has to figure out now is whose story he really wants to tell—Artan’s, Louise’s, or Lukas’?