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The Sun Also Rises: Documentary Review

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The subject of Thomas Altheimer’s new documentary, The Sun Also Rises, which recieved it’s premier at this year’s CPH:DOX festival, is his wife, the Danish literary scholar and critic, a Fulbright scholar and a PhD candidate at King’s College London, Mette Høeg. These are not the usual qualifications for the subject of a documentary, at least not without another 40 years of publications to warrant an investigation of an intellectual project. Instead, Høeg’s interventions into a particular niche debate, and the persona this has allowed her to construct, serve as a point of strange magnetism. The actual subjects of this documentary, paranoia, possibility and absurdity, orbit in the negative space surrounding her.

Navel Gazing

For those of our readership unfamiliar with the context of this film, I’d like to give a little critical background. In summer 2015, while a PhD student at Copenhagen University, Høeg wrote an article for the incredibly bourgeois newspaper Weekendavisen, in which she argues, forcefully and carelessly, that Denmark’s literary scene is dominated by “banal and self-indulgent” autofiction by young female authors. These authors, she argues, are obsessed with literary form at the expense of expressing anything of interest or significance. She blames this tendency on what she sees as the insular and clique-like nature of Denmark’s literary institutions, combined with the desire of many publishers and reviewers to engage with a form of politically correct feminist virtue signalling by championing the work of young women.

Høeg and Altheimer seem fascinated by the paranoia of the world in which they currently move and the way in which this paranoia seems to produce versions of their identities in spaces between the pieces of spurious evidence they can point to to justify their theories of persecution. But they also point towards the fragility of a more general paranoia that they seem to suggest is infecting the culture at large.

Mette Høeg in The Sun Also Rises
Mette Høeg in The Sun Also Rises.

While the technical critique of work itself may have some validity (I truly have no idea) and the notion that a niche such as literary publishing in Denmark, with its relationship to state and foundation funding, is rife with nepotism and favouritism seems plausible (if this is not the case it would be the first known example of such purity), her critique of the motivations driving this state of affairs was both oddly specific and strangely vague. Outlining the motivations for the mutually beneficial relationship between the establishment (middle-aged men) and the young female writers she writes; “The women get the firewood to stoke their own fiery brand of feminism, while the men get an extended interface with author-aspiring, admiring and sexually mature girls.” For many, this kind of ad hominem speculation drowned out any of the other points Høeg may have made.

On reading the article, what I found troubling was the way Høeg engaged the lazy cudgel of political correctness. And while Høeg does define this as the “aggressive performance of politically correct, boring and predictable queer-, gender-, anti-racism and feminism views”, the iterations of the term through the text almost becomes a form of performative virtue signalling of its own. Obviously, this is not meant for those she derides, rather, if I were to speculate wildly, Høeg’s denouncement of political correctness is in fact and attempt to produce the “correct” political positions for winning the favour of the wealthy older male audience of Weekendavisen.

The film follows an angst-ridden Høeg as she is preparing to leave the university to spend some time in the countryside, the town of Udbyhøj, with Altheimer. She is convinced that the university plans to get rid of her. This angst continues in their rural isolation as days of solitude in the snow-bound town combined with the drip of information from email correspondences and pointless strolls to the fjord give way to evenings of drinking, cod-philosophizing, marital hijinks and frozen pizza.

While I can see the value of opening up a critique of performative political correctness, the article slips to just slapping around the vague label. Over the course of the piece “political correctness” goes from a description of a mode of self-censorship resulting from a specific confluence of complex factors, to simply meaning “that which I do not like and find boring”. This stymies the article for me and unfortunately undercuts any of the more interesting points regarding the structural limitations a particular literary scene that the article gestures towards and ultimately renders it rather forgettable.

However, this was not to be the case. The article catapulted Høeg to a strange niche infamy. She was offered a literary show on the ever irreverent Radio 24/7 (where I hear she burnt a copy of Olga Ravn’s critically acclaimed novel, which is an odd thing to do on an audio medium but par for the course of Radio 24/7) and denounced by seemingly the entire Danish literary community, with the exception of its small right-wing. Journalists penned responses, authors blogged about the unfairness they felt, and the literary community gave an indignant scoff. To this day the mere mention of Høeg’s name in certain circles is met with derisive laughter. But outside of these small circles, it’s pretty difficult to find any other reaction than “Mette who”?

I come to this debate as something of an outsider. As a not-yet-Danish-speaker I have no way to actually judge the qualities of the prevailing fashions of new Danish literature with any accuracy, but I am fascinated with the depth of antipathy that this persona of Mette Høeg has produced. This is what originally motivated me to see the documentary. What made it more interesting to me was that, in the spring of 2016, Høeg was dismissed from her position as a PhD researcher at Copenhagen University and, according to the account given by the legal representation from The Danish Association of Masters and PhDs in Uniavisen, the circumstance surrounding this appears to constitute an unfair dismissal. It is the lead-up and immediate aftermath of this dismissal that forms the narrative arc of the film.

The Sun also Rises (is spoiled ahead).

The film opens with a quote from Lilian Munk Rösing, another Danish literary scholar Høeg had criticized, which refers to Høeg as “Literary studies answer to Donald Trump”. This remark was taken from a facebook post, and it was obviously meant with some irony, but it is here that potential readings of the film can bifurcate. The film, like the quote, can be taken at face-value, rendering it as a purely and insufferable relitigation of Høeg’s dispute with Copenhagen University. Or it can be taken as an entirely absurd remark, with what follows similarly being a document of the absurdist black satire of humanities academia, the neoliberal university, as well as Høeg getting in more jibes in against the subject of her original critique.

Regardless of the actuality of the filmmaker’s intent, I opt for the latter reading, if only because it is more fun. The film follows an angst-ridden Høeg as she is preparing to leave the university to spend some time in the countryside, the town of Udbyhøj, with Altheimer. She is convinced that the university plans to get rid of her. This angst continues in their rural isolation as days of solitude in the snow-bound town combined with the drip of information from email correspondences and pointless strolls to the fjord give way to evenings of drinking, cod-philosophizing, marital hijinks and frozen pizza. On one of the last evenings of their retreat, the couple converse in their car about a planned trip to Tijuana and the possibility of Høeg escaping academia to become a stripper there and the potential cost versus benefits of this sliding into prostitution. The faux-earnestness here is hilarious.

Thomas Altheimer with a sliding door.
Thomas Altheimer with a sliding door.

For much of the film, Altheimer remains behind the camera, which is shakily hand-held in that exaggerated way of the Danish filmmaking tradition and it is similarly inconsistent with the focus. It is here that I begin to see the film return to Høeg’s initial critique of contemporary Danish literature resurface. The camera acts as a playful lens for the fetishized authenticity of autofiction, a point that is exaggerated as Høeg, with her winter coat and elfin appearance, points out locations of significance to long dead relatives against a backdrop of fresh white snow.

This is then twisted as it becomes ever more evident that Altheimer’s gaze is nothing if not male. This is noticeable but perhaps slightly ambiguous early on as he attempts to film her out of focus in the shower while she discusses her case. However, the gaze of the camera becomes impossible to ignore as he films her quasi-voyeuristically through the cottage window just going about her business and as she enters the kitchen in the most feminine of aprons with his foot on the table while she cooks. Finally, so as not to leave any ambiguity about what the camera is doing, Altheimer reaches out and pulls down Høeg’s leggings while she is bent over in front of him, and proceeds to follow her bare bum around the kitchen.

Not to say that the allegation is true, but to be surprised that there would be a political response to a critique of what she herself claimed to be a politically correct establishment is extraordinarily naive. This indicates to me ever more clearly that this film is not occupying the space of a document of events but instead a fiction about reality, with this as a self-conscious moment of character construction.

This all seems to be incredibly self-conscious, which presents two possibilities to me of what is going on. Either this obvious level of asinine machismo at play is intended as a provocation to meet the charges of misogyny against Høeg with petulant defiance, or it’s a commentary on how works that are ostensibly about the experiences of a female subject are so tied up with patriarchy they often reproduce it. It may well be both.

Back in Copenhagen, we are treated to the audio from Høeg’s so-called ‘recovery intervention’, in which we hear the head of the PhD program, Sune Auken, lay out the situation to Høeg in such a way that her options are both impossible but entirely above board in that special way experienced managers can. There is but one slip up however, when Høeg argues that she has not had the opportunity to make a formal objection to the proceedings, Auken retorts “I think you are making a very lively objection at this moment”. In terms of creating a villain for the piece with little more than some audio, a few seconds of footage of a man with a hood walking away in the rain and some editing software, Altheimer should be commended.  

That said, the discussion between the couple, of their suspicion that the motivation for Høeg’s dismissal may have been political, seems willfully obtuse. Not to say that the allegation is true, but to be surprised that there would be a political response to a critique of what she herself claimed to be a corrupt politically correct establishment is extraordinarily naive. This indicates to me ever more clearly that this film is not occupying the space of a document of events but instead a fiction about reality, with this as a self-conscious moment of character construction.

After Høeg rejects the universities demands, she and Altheimer are off to Tijuana. The cutting is much more frenetic now as the couple passionately kiss on camera (supportive? possessive? who’s to say?) dance and drink in bars, culminating with Høeg stripping and pole dancing in a club. Her particular kind popularity with this crowd, as opposed to what she left behind in Copenhagen, is symbolized by the pile of currency left on the table. The film ends as the couple drives across the Mexican desert.

Fictions of Every Kind

The Sun also Rises is a documentary in the same sense that allowed The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq to be included in the CPH: DOX festival a couple of years ago; it is a fiction about real people that tells you very little about their actuality but a great deal about their ideas. Høeg and Altheimer seem fascinated by the paranoia of the world in which they currently move and the way in which this paranoia seems to produce versions of their identities in spaces between the pieces of spurious evidence they can point to justify their theories of persecution. But they also point towards the fragility of a more general paranoia that they seem to suggest is infecting the culture at large. We see this in the juxtaposition between the desolate claustrophobic isolated spaces of Denmark and the academy and the light, open vistas and exuberance (albeit creepily macho) of Mexico. This seems to communicate something of the futility of pursuing acceptance in a world of such narrowly defined limitations when life can be so much richer. But when this is taken with one of the final scenes, a cut back to Udbyhøj, where we see Høeg running madly around a deserted car in the middle of a snow-covered field as the sun rises, this notion becomes complicated. The pull of that world of strict limitations still seems to have some power and importance that Altheimer and Høeg may not want to explicitly admit but is nonetheless evident in the very existence of the film.

A panel debate followed the showing of the film, the ostensible topic of which was “what may one not research”? Høeg was amongst the participants and when an interlocutor quotes her own remark that her role in the film is as a character in a third person narration constructed by Altheimer, the debate switches quickly to the relitigation of Høeg’s case. As frustrating/entertaining as this discussion is to witness, it allows for us to consider something more interesting. Altheimer’s artistic practice and academic work explores the concept that he refers to as “fictioneering”, which could be thought of as the construction of fictions onto the spaces that are often regarded as reality. I start to wonder if this is what is being played out, has the character of Høeg from the film, naive and persecuted, bled into the real world? Is this their response to the perceived cosiness of autofiction; rather that life being confined to the safety of the page of the film, has the film spilled into the world?

The Sun Also Rises will be shown for the final time at CPH:DOX at the Palads theater 21:30 on Sunday.

You can also check out the fallout from this review here.
and Giovana Alesandro’s response to that fallout here.

Macon has spent the last four years trying to shoehorn Infinite Jest into a PhD about popular music and capitalism. He managed to do this by making it about something called sonic fiction. He is one half of the podcasting team and the reason why the critical theory section is an odd mix of Adorno and Deleuze & Guattari. For many months he was mistaken for a ghost that had decided to haunt the store, but it was just him editing his thesis and/or the podcast. Here he writes about things which might be true or are entirely made up.

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