Each of us privileged enough to learn about the world from books and absorb it in travel has a special idealized place that persists, regardless of our heritage or life’s discourse, as the realest of worlds and our true home. For Milton, it was a Homeric Greece everliving and everlasting; for Nabokov, the country estate of the progressive Russia of his adolescence; for Melville, it was the ocean itself, the sensation of movement free from the hum of men. And it is to this place that each person who lives to write will turn for inspiration, because that place, however sentimentalized and flawless, remains throughout his life the endless font for his pen. You may ask, and quite rightly, whether it is healthy to escape to realms of pure delight. There are certainly abuses of this Elysium, and you will find them among the most abstract and pitiless writers (anonymous and cowled amidst these positive pages) who reject life’s plenitude in favor of an illusory paradise. That is hardly the point. Without ideals, without some brazen image of beneficence and beatitude, we are shells with the flesh of apes doomed to evolve only as much as chemistry permits. To survive we must be redeemed by the grandeur of life, indeed a luxury for the majority of our fit species, and pursue it with full sail. And if you have ever been to Scandinavia, especially to Copenhagen, you may understand the light that engilds my horizon when I think myself there. Such is the fate of Alex David (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), the protagonist of this marvelous film.
Alex is a fortunate young man, and not only because he lives and breathes in Europe’s most beautiful city. He is young, handsome, unpretentious, a successful photographer if a bit scruffy around the edges, and every night after snapping away to his heart’s content, the beneficiary of a fine apartment and an even finer girlfriend Simone (the lovely Marie Bonnevie). In fact, just by being himself Alex provokes the envy of any older man, even one whose youth was filled with all the riches of modern European existence: artistic and political freedom, a life in a prosperous postwar city in the throes of an economic miracle, the deep inhale of a cigarette, the mouthful of the strongest liquor, and the exploration of every inch of a beautiful woman’s world. Who would not want to trade places with Alex and relive our one youth, given to persons and places we often must leave behind? What older man with a substantially younger wife would not fear Alex, his studied lassitude, his carefully groomed stubble, and that most seductive of professions, photography, through which any woman can gain immortality? Yes, he has all the characteristics of a wife-stealer. Which is precisely what esteemed Swedish novelist August Holm (Krister Henriksson) decides to make out of him.
We meet Holm, a solemn aesthete in his late fifties, and his stunning thirtyish wife Aimee (also played by Bonnevie) as they come to a posh Copenhagen hotel for the night. Holm is to speak at some conference about his novels and compose, as he always does, while ignoring his immediate vicinity. Accustomed to the role of second fiddle despite Holm’s obvious tender devotion, Aimee is left to find something to do with her evening. What she finds is Alex, who understands their meeting as fate, follows her to her hotel room, and allows sensuality to take its course. The next morning he awakens to find his life changed: Aimee is not around, his apartment is no longer his, and no one (including Simone) from his previous life seems to recognize him. By entering Aimee’s world, he has lost his own; soon enough we become aware that Holm, whose soft, lush voiceover mocks the adultery it narrates, is pulling more than one string. And Alex and Aimee, or maybe Simone in an alternative reality, have no option but to play along if they wish their love, which is indeed what both have waited for all their years to experience, to survive.
One reviewer was erudite enough to compare this tale to this ancient legend, which is a fair estimation of a modernized fable. It is true Orpheus and Alex are both caught between two worlds, but only Alex is victimized by a lack of information and in love with two women (who are obviously the same actress, although the audience is left to wonder why they might resemble each other). Orpheus knew the unusual conditions of his agreement and violated them absentmindedly; Alex has consented to nothing and cannot fathom why and how his life could have changed overnight. Yet it was worth it because his love for Aimee is worth it. Even if neither one were to exist outside the mind of their creator.