That (Not So) Festive Feeling

Andrew Young heads to the London Film Festival to interview the director and stars of ‘That Time of Year’

Image: BFI London Film Festival

Having its UK premiere at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, Paprika Steen’s That Time of Year is one of the “smaller” films in this year’s programme. Nestled within the ‘Laugh’ strand of films, it is a low-key film about a regular, commonplace occasion: Christmas. The film takes place on Christmas Eve, when families all over Denmark gather for their annual family dinner. Director-star Steen plays Katrine, the host of this year’s gathering. As the guests arrive and the ensemble builds, the drama and comedy of the film hits top gear.

The film’s poster is adorned with a shiny red bauble with a lit fuse attached to it. The bomb-bauble, as we’ll refer to it, is the perfect visual metaphor for That Time of Year. Unsurprisingly, the family’s veneer of love and pleasantry is broken down and Katrine’s clan become less than harmonious. Joining Stee in the cast are Sofie Gråbøl and Lars Brygmann as Katrine’s priest sister Barbara, and her writer husband Torben. Nouse sat down with Steen, Brygman and Gråbøl to discuss the film, family and the Danish-English bond.

The film’s premise is a familiar one and takes inspiration from a whole host of films, including Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, a film that Steen herself starred in. “It was twenty years ago, but I longed for doing another ensemble movie for many, many years. So, I think I just waited until I had the right idea. I am very inspired by the 70s, by Robert Altman and American Graffiti, where you have a day in a life, or a week in a life. Then you put a lot of people in that, and something is happening; in American Graffiti it’s the last day of school, in Nashville it’s a festival. I just love those kinds of movies where a lot of people come together and I love the movies about family.”

That Time of Year, then, was for Steen the perfect story to tackle. As Steen points out, this is very much a film about family. Gråbøl agrees: “Basically it’s more about family than Christmas. Christmas is the setting and it’s just a very grateful frame to be in because everyone relates to that evening where the family are almost forced to come together, so the pressure of everyone’s expectations.” This idea of forced company is something Steen also emphasises and was seen elsewhere in the festival with Ben Wheatley’s Happy New Year, Colin Burstead For Gråbøl, “The whole construction of family in Denmark has really disintegrated over the last forty years, in our lifetime. Since ’68 it really has fallen apart, and I think family is stronger in the UK. For us in Denmark, that one evening where all families are together is actually Christmas Eve. People move away from their parents very early and we don’t really see our elderly people, so it’s also maybe a look into a Danish cultural thing and that’s why Christmas Eve in Denmark is actually quite traumatic for many people.”

The coming together of different ages in the film leads to some great cross-generational comedy, but also, as Brygmann points out, “Is where all the tension comes from.” That Time of Year has an affection for its characters, but also a disdain for their attitudes and behaviour around each other. This comes across from the actors too. We discuss the self-righteousness of the film’s characters and sense of rivalry amongst the family. A great, biting example of this is Torben’s painfully over-earnest reaction to receiving ‘an African child’ as his Christmas present. Steen comments that, “I think also that we are self-righteous with our families. Barbara and Torben will go home to talk about how self-righteous Katrine is and Katrine will talk with her husband about how self-righteous they are. We all say the same thing. We never say that to our friends, only to our families.” Gråbøl interjects: “But you can break up with a friend, that’s the thing – you can’t break up with your family.”

The Christmas tradition is presented as a real challenge to the institution of the family by the film too: “All your values are being challenged that evening,” says Brygmann. “All your life is built up on all these values and your sister or your brother-in-law is questioning these values and you kind of panic and you get quite aggressive. It brings all the bad things out of you immediately, because you fight for these values and your own beliefs.”

All of this makes the film seem like a dense, serious treatise on the modern-day family, but in reality That Time of Year is a treat to watch. It has fantastic dialogue from playwright Jakob Weis. The script and ensemble set-up plays right into the hands of the film’s talented cast. Gråbøl says that parts like these are “like being in a candy store”. What Weis does so well, according to Gråbøl, is “put all these people in the room for one evening so the drama evolves around the characters, and obviously as an actor that’s luxury”. Despite the appeal of these roles, Brygmann stresses their challenges too: “When you see it, it has to be so light, so easy. It’s like music; when it works it’s so wonderful and you don’t care how each instrument is being played, it just comes together. I love to see those things myself and when they don’ work it’s awful.”

Brygmann, like Gråbøl, might be a familiar face to British audiences, particularly lovers of all things BBC Four. He plays Troels Hoxenhaven in the acclaimed political drama Borgen, whilst Gråbøl achieved fame as detective Sarah Lund in The Killing. Despite the overseas success of Danish television, Gråbøl points out that this was more by accident than by design. “I believe very strongly that the success of Danish television and film has proven that when we do something very local, like Dogme [95, an influential film movement started in Denmark by Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier], like The Killing, it was never intended to travel,” she says. “The more true you are to yourself as a culture or filmmaker, the more universal it becomes.” This universality is keenly felt in That Time of Year, tackling the intensely human subject of ‘the family’.

As much as Steen’s film is one that can travel across the globe, the film’s stars feel a particular connection to the UK. “When you work here you love it,” says Steen. “You feel at home here as actors. There’s kind of a bond I think.” Gråbøl adds that, “It’s just kind of wonderful I think as we grew up with English films and TV series and Upstairs Downstairs and everything. So it’s so nice that something is going the other way. We have a conversation now.”

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