Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Terribly Happy (Rhoades)

“Terribly Happy” Is Terribly Xenophobic
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My nephew is a small-town deputy sheriff and he tells me they have off-the-books ways of handling some problems. Justice reconfigured to fit local social mores.

His darkly funny stories remind me of a terrific little Danish film called “Terribly Happy” (or “Frygtelig lykkelig”) that’s playing at the Tropic Cinema. Part black comedy, part psychological thriller, part nouveau noir, it was Denmark’s entry as Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Academy Awards competition.

In it, a Copenhagen policeman is punished for an inappropriate use of his firearm by being exiled to a small village in South Jutland, a marshy area with a high water table and a bog into which many local problems disappear. Like a two-headed cow or an abandoned truck or an occasional miscreant.

You see, this village has its own ways of doing things – from how to hang your shirts on a clothesline to the proper method for disciplining kleptomaniac kids. As someone says of the villagers, “They like to handle things themselves.”

Robert Hansen, our policeman, is a by-the-book guy, one who follows the rules. No matter that his predecessor imbibed in a beer or two at the local bar, he orders soda. No matter that a swift cuff is the traditional punishment for bad boys, he administers a stern warning instead.

Fact is, he’s an outsider. And his refusal to serve as the fourth hand in a weekly card game with the doctor, pastor, and a shopkeeper underscores his refusal to conform to the village’s way of life.

Like him, a pretty blonde named Ingerlise is an outsider, even though she’s married to the town bully. The doctor is used to patching up the cuts and bruises she suffers at the hands of her jealous husband. And when she asks the new policeman to take her away from Jørgen’s abuse, it doesn’t help matters at home.

In “Terribly Happy” horrific accidents go undetected … or do they?

As with small towns, everybody knows what going on. They know that when Ingerlise’s daughter takes her dolly for a walk in the stroller, Jørgen is smacking her mom around. Or when Robert comes close to kissing Ingerlise, it’s the talk of the bar. Or when someone dies under mysterious circumstances, it’s murder rather than the coronary arrest as pronounced by the doctor.

Despite Robert’s determination to play by the rules, he is slowly seduced into the village’s ways just as surely as he’s being seduced by Ingerlise. Next think you know, our cop’s ordering a beer, smacking a delinquent kid, going along with the doctor’s convenient verdict, and looking to the bog as a solution to his problems.

This austere little film plays with genres in a way that’s mindful of the Coen Brothers (but with subtitles). As dark as “No Country for Old Men,” as bleak as “Blood Simple,” as ironic as “Fargo,” you’ll be mesmerized by Robert Hansen’s transformation into being “our man now.”

Director-writer Henrik Ruben Genz deserves accolades for this little gem of a film that, despite Coen Brothers comparisons, is uniquely his own.

The casting is spot-on. Jakob Cedergren is stoic as our policeman in peril. Lene Maria Christensen is flirtatious as the troublesome wife. And Kim Bodnia is menacing as the cowboy-hat-wearing husband. But it’s the villagers who look like they could be extras from “Harvest Home” or the original version of “The Wicker Man.”

The nearby bog serves as the film’s metaphor, a quagmire that sucks in its victims just as surely as our errant cop is slowly sucked in by the clannish villagers.
[from Solares Hill]

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