Thursday, April 8, 2010
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews the new Danish film "Terribly Happy."
Denmark’s South Jutland provides the backdrop for the ironically titled “Terribly Happy” (opening April 9 at Landmark's Ken Cinema). In this part of the country, the earth moves when you walk and the fields turn to swamps when it rains. You can listen to my radio review.
A narrator casually explains how a cow once disappeared in the swampy bog of Denmark’s South Jutland. But then popped up six months later to give birth to a calf with two heads – one being human. Freaks like that, he says, need to be kept out of sight… or dumped back in the bog. In fact, that bog proves to be the perfect place to hide just about anything.
So begins “Terribly Happy,” a quirky noirish tale about a tight knit community and its dark secrets. Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren who looks something like a Danish Ben Affleck) is a Copenhagen cop who’s just suffered a nervous breakdown. As punishment, he’s been banished to this little community where nothing is supposed to happen. He arrives in the soggy town and the officer dropping him off tries to enlighten him to the vernacular of the community -- like the word "Mojn." Mojn can mean either hello or goodbye. It’s kind of an all purpose salutation. Even the cat employs it. Hansen is indeed a stranger in a strange land and he tries to adjust. Soon he discovers, though, that the town isn’t as quiet or as peaceful as it seems.
A young woman fleeing an abusive husband comes to Hansen to beg for help as her husband pounds on the door. But when her hubby pleas for her return, she quietly goes back with him. And when youngsters are caught shoplifting, Hansen is instructed not to write up a report but rather to simply hit them to teach them a lesson. Such is life in “Terribly Happy.”
The film is difficult to describe. It has a bit of the “Twin Peaks” vibe with its isolated setting and secretive locals. It also calls to mind such Coen Brothers films as "Blood Simple" and "Fargo" in terms of its violent and unexpected crimes. But then you also have to throw in a pinch of “Hot Fuzz’” comic sensibility in regards to a community conspiracy. The conspirators in that British comedy kept repeating how everything was being done for “the greater good.” In “Terribly Happy,” the constant refrain is: “It's not how we do things here.”
Director Henrik Ruben Genz blends these various elements together to create a beguiling concoction. He keeps you as off balance as Hansen is on the town’s soggy terrain. Yet you’re also fascinated. You can get a sense of the film’s tone in this scene where a man is shot…And then the men at the bar, hearing the shot, begin to laugh… The awkward discrepancy between the violence and the reaction of the men sums up the film. You get some of that same dissonance in the title. There’s a discrepancy between the sound of the word “terribly” and the word “happy.” Plus “Terribly Happy” sounds like someone trying too hard to convince you of his or her happiness. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s line, “The lady doth protest too much.” This town is protesting too much, and trying too hard to put on a happy face.
Director Genz also displays a masterful sense of tone and style. He gives his film a crisp but chilly blue veneer that contrasts with the heavy reddish browns of the interiors. He allows things to seem normal on the surface yet there’s always an underlying unease. It might come from a silence that lingers too long or a sound effect that’s unexpectedly ominous like the wheels of a little girl’s baby carriage... Or the squishy sound of blood coming back up through the carpet after a murder has just been covered up.
“Terribly Happy” takes elements of noir, comedy and crime thrillers, and then tweaks and twists genre expectations to deliver something fresh. The film has a melancholy feel as it shows us people who sometimes act rashly, impulsively, and immorally but then have to find a way to continue on as if nothing happened.
Companion viewing: "Fargo," "Blood Simple," "Twin Peaks," "Hot Fuzz"