After two acclaimed feature films, including the award-winning A Soap (2006) about a woman’s relationship with her transsexual neighbor, Danish director Pernille Fischer Christensen wanted to go into more familiar territory while still exploring the porous subject of emotional intimacy. The loss of her father in 2001 inspired her to make A Family about a patriarch and his complicated relationship to his eldest daughter.
A Family was inspired by your own experience. Did that make it a more difficult process?
Definitely. It was probably one of the biggest challenges in doing this film. But dealing with death is something everyone has to go through at some point; it’s very universal. It’s not an autobiographical film, and even though the illnesses of the film’s Rikard and my father are identical, I took some artistic liberties. For instance, my family are not bakers like the Rheinwalds, but I have lost my father, and I know about siblings and the ties running through a family. Which probably cut down my research period.
When I did A Soap, I had to figure out all sorts of things about being a transsexual: what kind of music they listen to on a Tuesday night, what sort of nail polish they use… For this film, I knew how it was to hold the hand of someone who has cancer and could advise the actors on how to act like someone in extreme pain or being sedated by medicine. That’s the thing about my family: they’re not bakers, they’re doctors!
Why did you decide to make the Rheinwalds bakers?
I wanted to do a film about the body. We are what we eat, and bread is something extremely essential that’s found in all cultures. I think the basic element is deeply fascinating: from earth you rise, to earth shall you return. It’s beautifully hinged together, the body’s decay and resurrection.
I like that the Rheinwalds are not doing something that goes on in their heads, but something that you can see, something tangible. Furthermore, the acid-base conditions you experience when smelling bread are identical to the fragrance notes found in champagne. I find that very beautiful and symbolic, that bread is the most basic thing and the most exceptional as well.
The eldest daughter Ditte is faced with several life changing choices, ultimately career vs. family. Why is her family so important to her in that process?
She comes from a family that’s very proud of who they are. Their special unity springs from their name and their heritage. And they are incredible people – they’re interested in life, they’ve created this exceptional type of bread, they’re well educated. But they’re also quite full of themselves. Because of that heritage, the process of moving from the kids’ table to the adults’ table becomes much harder.
Ditte has been brought up with this pride of being who she is. She’s sort of the family’s nationalist, being proud of her name, her parents, the heritage and all that. I think that if you’ve grown up in a family with that kind of old-fashioned sense of family feeling, it gets so much more difficult setting yourself apart and starting your own life outside the family shadow. So it’s very painful for Ditte to do just that, but she knows that if she doesn’t do it, she’ll have no future.
So basically it’s a film about choices?
Very much! We’re so afraid of missing something. “If I choose red, I won’t have blue. But what if blue is the right thing?” So that’s definitely a theme in this film, our fear of losing something. We’re controlled by it nearly everyday, in nearly every second. We’re afraid of losing a job, afraid of missing the bus, of losing our parents. All the time. I think it runs through the entire movie: the fear we have a hard time letting go of. The most painful thing in the world for everyone is making that choice.
When the father Rikard falls ill, he lays the responsibility of the future of the bakery on his daughter. How does that affect their relationship?
They are very, very close and they love each other to death, but Rikard’s also sort of smothering her. Ditte’s like the family son, the youngest generation of the dynasty. It’s interesting that she is the one who resembles her father the most. He’s so proud, but also very self-indulgent, so it’s a bit funny that the one he loves the most is the one that looks the most like him. I think the love he has for her is very unique for a man because he doesn’t have anything sexual at stake with her. So she’s a woman that he can respect entirely because of what she is. And that’s what gets tested in this film: is he able to respect her? In a way they switch places, Ditte and Rikard. She goes from child to adult; he goes from adult, from the family leader and patriarch, to an infant.
Ditte is tempted to pursue her dream job in New York, but the film takes place in Copenhagen. Why these two cities?
One of the role models I had when making this film was Woody Allen. He is very good at using New York and the places in the city he frequents himself; there’s a homey feeling in the fact that he feels at home in the streets. In this case, I felt like using the Copenhagen I love, the Copenhagen of my childhood. Normally, I would be curious to go out and find a spectacular location, but here I wanted to make it feel as if it’s at my place.
While the film focuses on the frictions between Ditte and Rikard, the second sister is sort of forgotten. Why didn’t you put her more in focus?
So many people ask me that! I see the film as a love prism. It’s trying to mirror different love relations in a family. There’s the relationship between the adult siblings, the one between the younger siblings, between a man and his new wife, between an established couple… But the great jewel in the middle of the prism is Ditte and her father.