What happens when your longing to go back to the past gets fulfilled? This is what happens to parents Kjeld and Vibeke (Søren Malling and Bodil Jørgensen). Faced with an empty nest, the pair finds themselves struggling to speak to each other or even be close. That’s when Kjeld discovers that the apartment from their youth is up for sale. They move back in and as Kjeld reconstructs the apartment to look just as it did, the couple starts behaving more like their pre-child selves, until one morning they wake up to discover they are now 21 again.
As Parents takes a darker and more complicated turn, the characters are thrown into the complexities of figuring out their past and future together. The two worlds merge as Kjeld and Vibeke experience youthfulness and maturity at once.
Having premièred at Tribeca in April, Parents was supported by the New Danish Screen talent scheme. The films director, Christian Tafdrup, has previously acted in Danish films like After the Wedding and has previously directed a short film called Awakening. We spoke to the director about his first feature film and the meaning behind Parents.
Cinema Scandinavia: Can you tell us about the film?
Christian Tafdrup: Many years ago I had a dream at night where my parents went back to their pre-parenthood apartment and invited me for dinner. When I showed up they looked like they were 21 – they were wearing clothes from the seventies and my father had a beard again. It was such a nightmare! When I woke up I thought it was such an interesting idea, so I started to research what happens to middle-aged people when their children move out of home. It’s such a taboo topic. I spoke to a lot of mothers who were devastated but didn’t dare admit it. It’s hard for parents when their children leave and they have to find themselves again. When I looked at my own parents I could see that when my brother moved out of home they had this same problem.
I tried to connect my dream with this very common problem. It was very important for me not to just show this as a naturalistic drama but place it somewhere between dream and reality. I really like this kind of movies because dreams have their own logic and my ambition was that when people saw the movie they could follow the action and feelings even though it was weird. I was really working hard to find this balanced so it wasn’t just some kind of intellectual art movie, but something people could relate to.
CS: How long did it take you to make the film?
CT: I began writing in 2011 and it actually took me a long time to write the script. The script has taken many forms – it’s been a comedy, it’s been a very dark movie, it’s been everything. But the main idea has always been the same. We actually had a lot of obstacles when writing and getting money. One of the actors had a very serious accident – she was hit by a tractor while filming a children’s movie. We had to cancel our filming and wait seven months. After that, I had to find a new crew and new actors. When we finally got to filming we only had 22 days to film everything, but since then everything has gone really well.
CS: You were funded by the New Danish Screen scheme. Can you explain that?
CT: It supports new talent, or established artists looking to try new things. The key part is that you have to make it for very little money and challenge your way of thinking. I made my short film Awakening there. The short did really well so I’ve been working on different projects off and on until this one. The New Danish Screen has had a lot of success – I think they’ve produced 25 features and they have been successful, for example, R by Michael Noer. It’s a way to protect film as an art-form and not as a business, which is so rare in Denmark.
CS: It’s really intriguing that once the father goes to his younger self he seems to want to abandon his parental responsibilities and just enjoy himself, whereas the mother still has her maternal instincts.
CT: I think I was really looking at the difference between men and women, and though I wasn’t out to generalise anything I think there is a difference. When I look at myself and other men there is a romantic longing for the past. Men just think they can go back to that, but they have a very hard time doing it. They are kind of fucked up in their identity more-so than women. I spoke to a lot of women in their twenties who were partying and having fun and then one year later they were mothers! I think they are a lot more clear about what they want in life. A mother knows she is connected to her children. Maybe the father is too but he just can’t admit it. He’s trying to take control over everything and relive everything. I think that’s very close to myself – I’ve always been romantic about the past and I have a lot of things and memories. I think it’s a sad thing, but you also have to accept it about life before you can move on.
CS: While the mother is young, she starts off wanting to study but ends up wanting to have a child again, like the cycle is repeating itself.
CT: I wanted to say that we are who we are. This couple are still 52years old, they can pretend they are 21 again but it’s not who they are. You can always say you want to relive your life, but perhaps when given that you realise you don’t want it. The film is also a love story and love can be many things. It’s not about being wild, drinking wine and having an exciting education. It’s also about doing things like the gardening. When I saw my own parents gardening I thought they were in trouble and had nothing to talk about! But now I see there are a lot of good things in that. The film isn’t a divorce drama or a Strindberg drama, they really love each other.
CS: So you’re saying that it’s the small things that count?
CT: It is and it’s about being together. There’s a force of nature that’s bigger than us. There is already a plan for you! You can do what you want and have your freedom, but there’s some biological stuff in human beings. Everything goes one way, and it’s to the grave!
These people are 52 and they could actually have a long life together if they wanted to. I spoke with a lot of parents who actually realised that after the kids were gone they could do things again! They could travel and stay up all night – things they couldn’t do when they had children. It’s also like an acknowledgement to say that ‘Hey, I still have half of my life. I can do so many things!” Life isn’t over, you’re just older.
CS: You used two acting greats as well as two new actors.
CT: Yes it was very fun and very different. We did the parts with the older actors first and then the younger actors second. With Søren and Bodil we didn’t talk very much and they were very precise in their acting. I just had to say a few words and they had a really good chemistry. Actually, they’ve never been in a film together before, though they are very popular in Danish cinema. When I was working with them I was trying to find a precise way to do the scene, and then just rely on them.
With the younger actors, Miri Ann Beuschel hasn’t been in a film before. She’s actually Bodil’s niece, which is why they look so similar. Elliott Crossett Hove was fresh out of theatre school. They wanted this so much and they were so happy to be in a movie. They were such sweet people. With them, we talked a lot more about the characters and how it is to be on a film set and were phoning each other every other night and talking about the scenes in various ways.
So in both ways, it was very good but as a director you need to find different ways to direct based on the actors you have. In a way, it was like making two movies.
CS: When is the film premièring in Denmark?
CT: We’ve been fighting to find a distributor who wanted to sell it on the Danish market. Finally, we found someone who wanted to send it to the cinema. We aren’t sure when the première will be, but I hope it will be in October.
I think going to Tribeca will help a great deal. Before that I was on my own writing emails but when you have a festival pick you up and now an international sales agency you get a lot more attention. In Denmark when it goes well outside the country, they get back in the race!