Lise (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl) is the eldest of her siblings. They live somewhere in rural Denmark at the end of the 19th century. The cast consists almost entirely of females: the elderly grandmother, the mother, Lise and her younger sisters. The male characters are entirely secondary, relegated to a few short conversations. Lise’s mother Anna (Ida Cæcilie Rasmussen) is about to give birth, raising the possibility of a male heir.
This is a highly religious and superstitious community. A dream has suggested that Anna will give birth to a baby boy and die during labour in the hands of the doctor. The family takes the alleged premonition very seriously. Despite a protracted and painful labour with profuse bleeding, they refuse to invite a doctor, fearing that his presence will inevitably lead to Anna’s death. A stoical and dour grandmother – who has buried her husband and manifold children – insists that the Lord knows what’s best, and that they should allow destiny to take its course without impediments.
The child is final born but there is no consensus as to its gender. It is unclear whether Anna gave birth to an intersex baby, or whether the elders simply do not wish to reveal the birth of a baby boy to the young girls lest this could lead to Anna’s death. Meanwhile, Anna continues to bleed, her life gradually drained out of her body.
Lise believes that she is to blame for her mother’s condition because she stole a hair piece and exposed herself to a local boy called Kristen. Much of the story revolves around her feelings of anguish and fear. She is concerned that her actions and thoughts could lead to a tragic closure, ultimately leaving her at the helm of the family at such young age. She prays and begs to God not to take her mother away. She has to contend with the forces of nature (heaven being represented by a stormy sky). A literal rain of blood falls upon Lise’s golden hair and fair skin, suggesting that the outcome of the night might not be in favour of the teenager and her ailing mother.
Adapted from the 1912 novel A Night of Death by Marie Bregendhal, one of Denmark’s most acclaimed rural literature writers, As In Heaven is a mostly unremarkable rural tale of motherhood, life and death. Except for the impressive blood rain sequence, its cinematography is functional yet monotonous. The performances too are just about satisfactory, however without flare. Ultimately, this Danish drama lacks the punch factor. It has very little to offer in terms of innovation and provocativeness. Definitely not a dirty movie.
As In Heaven premiered in the Official Competition of the 69th San Sebastian International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. This doubted it would take off and reach for the stars, instead remaining on earthly ground. To this writer’s surprise, it won the Best Director and Best Leading Performance Ex-Aequo.
Out in the UK in October, as part of the BFI London Film Festival.