There are many ways to introduce women’s perspectives into film. At one end of the spectrum of possibilities is to choose an already established masculine hero and simply cast a woman in the role – a female superhero, a female James Bond – without allowing for the broader context that moulds women’s lives and outlook. As In Heaven, however, takes an entirely different approach.
The movie is a coming-of-age story of women and girls, which shows their lives as they actually were, taking every aspect into account, neither aggrandising nor dismissing their limitations. It not only deals with the normally recognised hopes and achievements, the action which is generally accepted as exciting and important in fiction, but also uniquely female disadvantages, struggles, distractions, perils, and dilemmas. This, admittedly, limits the dramatic potential of the story by conventional film standards, a challenge the director takes on with ease. The film even presents the story in what might be called a feminine manner. There are no heroic battles with clear cut wins and losses, or even easy to identify villains. The female characters are at once supported by their family, culture, and way of life, and limited or threatened by them, as demonstrated by two key characters, a mother and daughter.
This is the first feature film from director Tea Lindeburg, who formerly worked in television and was director of the award-winning Netflix series Equinox along with several series for Danish television. Lindeburg has spoken before about how she discovered the original material that inspired the project. Introducing the film at its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, she explained: “As In Heaven is based on a small, not very well known Danish book from 1912, written by a female author, based on her own childhood, growing up in the 1880s.”
While the description sounds innocuous, rather like the ‘Little House’ children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, this is definitely not the case. The novel in question, written by Marie Bregendahl, deals with serious, sometimes grisly matters at an adult level, even though many of the characters are children. Its original – and fitting – title translates as ‘Night Of Death.’
Lindeburg continues, “I read this book for the first time nine years ago, right after my own son had been born, and I was completely blown away. The way it dealt with life, and death, and religion, and superstition, and hope, and childhood spoke so true to me, and seemed very contemporary; and I knew right away I needed to make this film.” The story also deals with motherhood to a great extent, and Lindeburg has mentioned in an interview that she always seems to have mothers in her work – but usually evil mothers, while the mother in this film is admirable and entirely benevolent. She describes the project as “a labour of love”.
The film, like the novel, deals with straightforward worldly matters overlapping with the imaginary and the spiritual. The director explains, “At the core of the story is a mother in labour, who’s had a very vivid vision.” The vision impacts on the outcome of the birth, just as other mundane matters throughout the story, both minor and significant, are influenced by religious beliefs, superstitions, social custom, biases, and emotions.
Lindeburg admits to empathising with the characters as she dealt with an epidemic and all the fears and inconveniences associated with it during filming. She recalls, “We shot this film in five weeks, during Covid, with lots of children, and elders, and animals, and an exterior that was very dependent on the weather – all things that I’d always been told never to do. I became a little superstitious; I started to wear the mother’s ring, and I wore it all through producing, editing, effects, sound mix, and had not been able to take it off.”
The film opens on a peaceful, late 19th-century rural scene. There is birdsong, insect calls, and grass waves in the wind. A girl in her teens walks through a wheat field, humming, playfully blowing thistledown into the air. When she looks up at the clouds, she sees the clear sky darken and turn red. As she watches fearfully, thunder sounds and the sky begins to rain blood. She awakens from the terrifying dream in a narrow bed in a simple farmhouse, a crucifix on the wall beside her bed, an illustrated print of a prayer on the opposite wall. The girl is Lise (Flora Lindahl), the eldest daughter of the rural family; events in the film are seen from her perspective. Her dream introduces the idea of premonitions and visions, which is significant to Lise’s family and community, and which becomes vital to the emerging story.
Lise, a clever, thoughtful girl, is preparing to attend school, the first in her family to do so. This is at the insistence of her mother, Anna. Lise’s father, meanwhile, does not approve of the plan but has grudgingly agreed to it. Like other male characters in this story, the father is present but removed from the central action. Men are part of the background in Lise’s world, despite their authority over her. Her nervousness at leaving home is exceeded by her excitement at the idea of education, of new possibilities for her future life. It is established that her mother expects another baby very soon, and Lise is expected to be of help until she leaves for school.
As Lise sets out on a series of errands, her various encounters provide an overview of the environment in which she lives, the attitudes and expectations she has grown up with. The precariousness of their lives is demonstrated by a nearby family who have been forced to sell their farm, fleeing in shame without notifying their neighbours of their departure. A boy, who Lise’s age, tries to indirectly molest and humiliate her, confidently attacking her feminine decency, but she maintains her dignity.
Later, Lise also encounters another boy in her teens, one she admires; their banter borders on innocent flirtation. Lise’s youthful infatuation, and her hopes of one day becoming a wife and mother, are somewhat in conflict with her stronger wish to become a scholar, a regret she seems to quietly absorb. As she goes about her day, Lise is also intermittently in charge of her younger siblings. This becomes a continuous task when her mother goes into labour.
The film avoids taking any prominent position on Lise’s life and obligations. While she is expected, as the eldest child, to do a substantial share of the work at home, she is never portrayed as overburdened or exploited; her chores are an act of love. She is almost constantly surrounded by children, but she is clearly fond of her siblings and enjoys their company. Her relationship with her mother is similarly warm and affectionate. The surrounding countryside where she spends much of her time is shown as beautiful rather than simply functional, a constant, idyllic background to the family’s activities, and the indoor scenes are made cosy and intimate, in spite of the rustic simplicity of the rooms. The eagerly awaited attendance at school is a welcome opportunity to her, not merely an escape.
To this point, the film is slow and dreamy, providing a leisurely introduction to the characters and their place in the family, but also examining the beliefs that guide or control them, which range from the family’s Christian beliefs to generally accepted social mores, to local myths or superstitions. The plot begins to intensify when Lise returns home to find her mother in labour and the midwife arriving. Lise takes charge of the house and the children, putting the young ones to bed, and trying to gain a hint of what is going on with their mother. Lise overhears an argument among the women caring for her mother, over whether to follow the guidance of dreams and portents in the traditional manner, or to take a more modern medical approach, the elderly housekeeper insisting that Anna’s recent vision be respected at all costs. Lise begins to worry, trying to soothe both herself and the children, and waits without any knowledge of what is really happening, apart from one startling moment of horror when Lise catches a glimpse of her mother in what seems to be abnormally painful labour.
During the long, tense night that follows, a struggle ensues between apparent common sense and superstition, faith and folklore. The children resort to prayer, debating religion according to their limited understanding, childishly speculating about the great issues of birth, illness, pain, motherhood. Lise, increasingly frightened as the night wears on, resorts not only to prayer but to pleas, bargaining, and offers of self-sacrifice. Oddly, the film presents the family’s superstitions and signs in a distinctly objective manner, not only refraining from any judgment of the women for grasping at what explanations they can find but even joining in, offering some of its own symbolic omens and foreshadowings of the same variety, as part of the story. The suspense is acute, as only small, confusing crumbs of information reach them concerning their mother’s situation. In this state of mind, they wait for the morning, for news that may change their lives and their futures entirely.
The story is filmed beautifully and with outward artlessness appropriate to the characters, allowing the natural world to echo or represent their hopes and fears – sometimes as a gentle background chorus, sometimes in grim or foreboding ways. The tenuousness of everything Anna and her daughters care about, whether Lise’s education, their property, or life itself, comes across constantly and movingly. Their fear, their suffering, their dangerous lack of information, and their powerlessness combine to colour the poignant conclusion. It is a rare story of ordinary women, told simply and movingly, with compassion and, above all, with respect.
As In Heaven premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and screened at the BFI London Film Festival.