Sometimes autobiography is best left locked in a drawer rather than developed onscreen, and Nils Malmros’ “Sorrow and Joy” is a perfect case in point. Always a helmer who mines his youthful experiences, Malmros maladroitly mirrors his adult self in his latest, about a director whose temporarily psychotic wife kills their infant. Perhaps the painful story is too emotionally close, as “Sorrow and Joy” is a flat, even vaguely ridiculous picture that desperately needed a strong producer’s hand. Apart from a few Danish showcases, it’s difficult to imagine this ungainly drama traveling.
Only at the end does a title appear saying the story is based on real events, but the parallels are obvious early on, and the helmer has himself acknowledged the source of his material. Not only is the protag a director, but his office is decorated with a poster from the 1982 Cannes Film Festival (where Malmros’ “Tree of Knowledge” preemed), and an embarrassingly shot scene meant to be set at the 1983 Berlinale fits with the premiere of “Beauty and the Beast.”
A stunningly poor opening has Else (Ida Dwinger) drop to the floor screaming that her daughter Signe (Helle Fagralid) has just slit the throat of 9-month-old Maria. Malmros then shifts back and forth in time, following the lives of movie director Johannes (Jakob Cedergren, colorless) and his wife, Signe, via the hoary device of Johannes speaking to shrink Birkemose (Nicolas Bro).
Schoolteacher Signe is an unsophisticated yet sprightly woman when she meets the confident Johannes, who criticizes her taste in furniture; Malmros makes much of this odd plot strand, though his production designer seems to have chosen Johannes’ sparse decor from the cheaper display rooms at Ikea. Signe and Johannes marry, but his increasing success as a director (the on-set scenes are amateurish) pushes Signe out and makes her feel inferior. And oh, by the way, there’s a history of mental illness on her father’s side, yet that doesn’t stop him from dumping her entire prescription of lithium down the toilet. Not a good move.
Once Signe gets pregnant, she’s blissfully happy, but her jealousy over teen actress Iben (Maja Dybboe), and Johannes’ intermittent attention lead to despair and psychosis, until the fateful day when she cuts little Maria’s throat. Johannes understands it was his domination and judgmental behavior that led her to such a horrible act (really? Not that he flushed her anti-depressants down the crapper?), and tries to get the courts to sentence her to psychiatric care rather than psychiatric incarceration. Fortunately for them, all the parents of Signe’s students sign a letter of support saying that, even though she killed her own baby, they want her to continue educating their darlings. Come again?
How much of this story cleaves to fact and how much has been doctored is impossible to tell, though Malmros’ earnest defense of his wife and the later solidity of his marriage are indisputable. Such a demonstration of love is commendable in a way, but it doesn’t make for a believable screenplay. Making things worse, the helmer appears to have lost much of his understanding of mise-en-scene, and that’s not even mentioning the risible epilogue, “26 years later.” Scenes lack psychological as well as visual depth, and the sets look disconcertingly cheap. Using Henry Purcell’s profound aria “When I am laid in earth” for a key scene merely showcases Malmros’ inability to rationally analyze these tragic events and draw viable conclusions.