Lise, 14, walks in a cornfield on a sunny day, her palm brushing its spikes. Suddenly, the sky darkens and a sinister red cloud builds in the distance, moving ominously towards her, then raining blood on her face.
The next day, Lise, the eldest of eight siblings, will become the first in her family to go away to school. But then a dramatic turn of events puts her future in doubt.
Set on a farmstead in late nineteenth century West Jutland in Denmark, “As in Heaven” marks the feature debut of Tea Lindeburg. Sold by Denmark LevelK, it is based on a literary classic, “En Dødsnat” (“A Night of Death”), the 1912 novel by Marie Bregendahl. Its blood cloud opening sequence turns out to be a premonitory dream, as Lise awakes in her bed on the morning of a day that may change her life altogether.
Which in a way seems to be the very point of the film. A buzz title produced by Lise Orheim Stender (“Heartstone”) and Jesper Morthorst (“Silent Heart”) for Danish production shingle Motor, it world premieres in Toronto’s Discovery section before celebrating its European debut in main competition at the San Sebastian Festival.
Lise dreams of going away to school, as women’s education begins to become one of the battles fought for by women. But that dream of emancipation is endangered by familial responsibilities as a woman, a challenge still pressing near 150 years after the story.
More than anything else, however, shattering the scenario of a classic period drama, “As in Heaven” rings true as a portrait of young female consciousness, kaleidoscopic, chaotic, ranging from an eroticism to Lise’s sense of own sexual allure, moments of sudden fantasy and a self awareness which sets her apart from the other characters. It builds to a tremendous scene when Lise looks in mirror fully conscious of her future fate.
Variety talked with Lindeburg just before the film’s Toronto world premiere.
”As in Heaven” begins with a dream, dreamt by Lise. Though a period drama picturing rural life in 1880s-or-so Denmark, it slips straight social realism, I think, to build as a portrait of a young woman’s emerging consciousness at multiple levels, sexual, social, even of gender issues. Could you comment?
It was never my ambition to tell a straight social realism story. It’s not the way I experience or see life. And just as importantly, it’s not the way the people living in rural Denmark in the 1800s experienced life either. They believed in signs. And in visions. And in destiny and God. I felt it important to include that whole layer, to try to convey how life was understood back then. Lise’s visions are not included in the original novel it is adapted from, these are my own interpretations and an attempt to emphasize why the mother’s vision has so much weight in the story. Because what IS a big part of the novel is the mother’s dream, and how her vision ends up becoming true. But why it becomes true is up for each one of us to decide on our own.
The feature treats huge issues, such as the subordination of a woman’s life to her familial responsibilities. These are never really openly articulated in dialog however. Again, can you comment?
I didn’t see the need for it. What comes through the film comes through. I was drawn to this story not by a political agenda but by the despair of a young girl who loses everything over one night. By the tale of a birth that is doomed. By depicting female characters and destinies set in a time not so long ago. By how fragile a life is, by how small we humans are, and by how relevant this story still feels to me because we stand on the shoulders of the ones before us, just like someday others will stand on ours.
The film is inspired by the breakthrough 1912 novel of Marie Bregendahl. Though famed as a regional pictorialist, her writing seems remarkably modern in its incorporation of the subjective and eroticism into narratives. Was that one of the things which attracted you about the adaptation?
Both of those elements were not part of the original story.
Her novel is told through an all knowing persona, almost a God like character, that watches it all from above and comments on what is happening and at the same time contextualizes it to the future and the past.
Incorporating the subjective view was my own take. Both in the form of Lise’s visions but also in telling the story through her.
To include the eroticism was a choice that seemed crucial to me. This is a girl just about to leave childhood on the verge to womanhood, who is exposed to the very deep core of “the essence” of being a woman (in a traditional understanding) and who experiences where her own budding innocent sexuality one day might lead her. What drew me to the story was Lise’s hopelessness and loneliness. And her inability to act. Her idea that she somehow thinks she can influence the outcome of her mother’s labour but in reality has no power over her mother or her own fate.
What were your main guidelines for the direction of “As in Heaven”?
I tried to pursue honesty. Honesty to the period, honesty to the characters and the situations but most of all honesty to Lise and her journey.
And that honesty to me included poetry. To try to convey emotions at the same level as actions. The cinematographer Marcel and I would approach most scenes with: If we only had one shot how would we tell this scene? Some of the one-shot scenes are still in the film, others are broken up, but it was an effective way for us to focus on what was the essence of every scene.
We were always prepared but always also took time to re-evaluate and grab the gifts that showed up on set. Like the butterflies.
Directing the children was a thing of its own. To get honesty from children, there needs to be room for play and fun. Some scenes with the older children were driven by specific dialogue so they had to be directed quite tight, but others needed to feel alive and spontaneous and for that playing was a key word. And a lot of hugs.
You also created “Equinox” for Netflix. Was that experience so different from making “As In Heaven”? Or maybe it’s difficult to compare given “Equinox” adapts your original podcast?
The experiences of making them were almost incomparable.
Just given that one was a TV show and the other was a film made the experiences completely different. With Equinox I had to pass on the scripts to another director, so a big part of it was sharing the vision and making sure he understood my thoughts but also had room to add his own voice.
“As In Heaven” was a film I had wanted to make for nine years. For many years I was alone with this story. After the producers got involved the first creative person I had by me was the production designer. We worked very closely on how we wanted this world to be. Later the rest got involved one by one, but it was always more partnerships in the different phases, me and the cinematographer, me and the editor, me and the sound designer etc, so I felt I had much more control at every step. Everyone was there to help me fulfill my vision and I am so thankful how they all were so generous with their expertise and creativity. There was something about the project that made the people involved truly invest themselves. It was a magical experience.
But what unites “Equinox” and “As in Heaven” is that they both for me were projects of love. That’s for sure. And in many ways both very much me.