Putting the Film “A Second Chance” On the Couch

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

[WARNING: MULTIPLE SPOILER ALERTS!] What happens when you deny reality? What are the psychological consequences when someone refuses to face painful feelings or perceptions, when someone cannot face loss? A Second Chance, a 2014 Danish film directed by Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) and starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones), currently being released in the U.S. by Rock Salt Releasing, addresses this question. Since the reality being denied involves the neglect of a baby — and worse — the problem of denial shows up in ways that are especially sharp and painful to watch.

The plot: Two couples, each with a baby, a study in apparent contrasts. The first, Andreas (played by Coster-Waldau), a police detective, and his well-to-do wife, Anne, are the parents of Alexander, a difficult but much beloved baby boy. The second couple, drug addicts, Tristan and Sanne, are the parents of baby boy Sofus, a victim of obvious neglect. In addition, Tristan is given to violent and controlling outbursts toward Sanne. During a drug bust, Andreas and his alcoholic partner, Simon, discover Sofus hidden away in a closet, covered with urine and feces. In spite of such obvious neglect, Sofus appears to be well-fed and otherwise in good enough health to avoid being taken away from his parents.

Reality turns out to be much more complicated — and much darker. One night Anne appears to discover that baby Alexander has died from what seems to be a case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Andreas, fearing for his wife’s sanity, sedates her, takes the dead infant Alexander away and decides to secretly switch babies with Tristan and Sanne. He breaks into Tristan and Sanne’s apartment while they are sleeping to leave behind his dead son and take Sofus. When Tristan and Sanne awake to discover their son, Sofus (really, Alexander), dead, Sanne protests that the baby is not Sofus, but Tristan, believing the dead baby to be, in fact, his own (and fearing jail), concocts a scheme in which he buries “Sofus” but pretends that he has been kidnapped. The couple is taken in for questioning. Proclaiming that Sofus is still alive — though no one believes her — Sanne has a breakdown and is psychiatrically hospitalized. Tristan, convinced that the dead baby he buried is Sofus, eventually confesses, blames Sanne for the baby’s death, and leads the police to the burial site where they find the dead baby.

In the meantime, Anne appears to begin to connect with her new replacement baby, but this turns out to be illusory. One night, Anne takes the baby to a highway overpass, gives him to a passing motorist for safekeeping, and jumps off the bridge and kills herself.

In the shocking denouement of the film, Andreas learns from Alexander’s autopsy that his baby actually died from a cerebral hemorrhage caused by “shaken baby syndrome,” obviously at the hands of his wife, Anne. He returns Sofus to Sanne and leaves the police force. The viewer is then led to believe that Sanne eventually gets off drugs and that she and Sofus thrive.

Everyone in the film suffers from an inability to face reality and grieve. Successful mourning can only occur if one confronts and accepts the reality of loss, and everyone in the film struggles to do so. Anne can’t face the fact that her own mother didn’t love her and that she, herself, resented her baby and accidentally killed him. Faced with a replacement baby, she can no longer deny what she did and so has to punish herself by committing suicide.

Andreas can’t face the fact that Alexander’s fussiness is causing Anne great distress and that she has been retaliating by harming the baby right under Andreas’ nose. Andreas is outraged as well at the unfair reality that his son died while a drug addict’s baby lives. Under the pressure of these conflicts, he hatches the bizarre strategy of switching babies, confident that no one will ever know.

Tristan, by virtue of being an addict, is obviously someone who can’t face the world on its own terms, without drugs. But he also becomes violent at home when faced with the slightest evidence that Sanne has a will of her own. And, finally, he can’t face the fact that he wakes up to a world in which he has a dead baby and thus has to concoct an elaborate, but flimsy, scheme to cover it up — he literally has to bury the truth.

Sanne obviously can’t face the fact that her husband is a murdering drug addict who makes it impossible for her to care for their son. She won’t let herself see the harm being down to herself and Sophus. Ultimately, she goes crazy because she can’t and won’t accept the reality upon which the world is insisting, namely, that her son is dead.

Even Simon, Andreas’ partner becomes a drunk because he can’t deal with the painful reality that his ex-wife is dating someone else who is becoming a new father figure to his son.

Everyone is running from the truth. No one can mourn his or her losses because no one can really accept reality. The two characters who do face it suffer catastrophic consequences. When Anne finds Alexander dead and realizes the awful fact that she probably killed him, she has to kill herself. And Sanne, holding on to what she knows to be true — namely, that the dead infant is not her son — has to go crazy when faced with a world that insists that Sofus is dead. In A Second Chance, the denial of loss causes people to do crazy things, but facing reality can even be worse.

In normal grief, people gradually and progressively integrate the fact that a loved one is no longer there, or that a relationship is disappointing, or painfully traumatic. Sometimes we have to face the fact that our parents let us down, or that our children can’t be rescued from every possible harm, or that a relationship is bad and is hurting us. If we can’t face these frustrations, losses, or constraints, we can’t move on with our lives.

In A Second Chance, reality is challenged, distorted, rearranged, or denied with tragic results. However, it finally offers the viewer some stories of redemption and healthy mourning. Simon cleans up his act. And Andreas finally faces the tragic consequences of his wife, Anne’s, psychopathology. He returns Sofus to his true mother and eventually is a witness to their rehabilitation. Such growth is possible only when reality is squarely accepted on its own terms, when pain and loss are truly mourned. A Second Chance shows us the price we pay when this fails to happen.