Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Feb 13, 2010 11:21 am 
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Kim Bodnia, Robert Hansen

Serious joking in South Jutland

The ironically titled Danish film Terribly Happy is the tale of a cop sent to serve as local Marshall in a remote border town in South Jutland called Skarrild that doesn't need cops or have much use for them. It's a place where nothing much happens. Ha! Well -- that's what they say. This part of the country, you don't know if you're coming or going. People use the same monosyllable, "Mojn" (pronounced "moyn") to say both "hello" and "goodbye." Men of few words, they are, these boozy locals, who like to settle scores their way, not "by the book." Klepto kids are just boxed brutally on the ears and sent packing. There's a bog that swallows up junk, sometimes a cow, maybe some darker secrets. This place is insular, mysterious, and weird. And a bog, like a pistol, once introduced, must be used.

Frygtelig lykkelig (it sounds funnier in Danish) has its own rhythm and momentum, and a snappy style including a sound design that's sometimes explosive, sometimes ironic. The film's consistently effective, and has a unique feel, though at times its hodgepodge of genres and stylistic borrowings evokes Coen brothers (especially Blood Simple) and David Lynch work as it would be if the American auteurs had filmed in Danish in consultation with Aki Kaurismaki. A mix of psychological thriller, horror story, and neo-noir, it moves fast but also manages to take the time necessary to also be a mood piece in which the town vies with the cop for the role of protagonist.

Here are the outlines, but the details have to be omitted because it's all in the surprises and twists. Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is the policeman from Copenhagen sent out here because he's had a mental breakdown some time ago. He has, shall we say, anger issues. "You're working your way up?" somebody says. Again: ha! He's in serious limbo. He looks convincing in his police uniform and has a modicum of leading man looks. But then again there's something a bit fuzzy about him too -- something a bit lost. He misses an estranged or divorced wife back home, and repeatedly tries to call her and a little daughter, but without results. He has messed up in some way, and this is a punishment assignment.

Like many noir heroes, Robert comes on the scene already in trouble and immediately gets into more. A pretty but dicey blond called Ingerlise Buhl (Lene Maria Christensen), appears, saying her husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) has beaten her. She barges in on Robert the way many a dubious babe has appeared on a hapless noir detective's doorstep. It's not so much a domestic squabble complaint as an attempted seduction -- and instant jeopardy for Robert. He can't ignore Ingerlise but there's no safe way to deal with her. The local rule against outside "by the book" punishments is compounded by the fact that Jørgen turns out to be a scary dude, the town bully; also a man said to have fathered a number of children around town.

The only kids we see are shoplifters corralled by the local grocer, whom Robert learns to smack as instructed rather than book (the kids, that is, not the grocer). And then there's the well-dressed Dorothe (Mathilde Maack), Ingerlise and Jørgen's little girl, who's often seen creepily pushing a big baby carriage around the town's empty, haunted streets with her teddy bear inside. It seems when bad stuff begins at home, she escapes by pushing the carriage. Funnily enough rumor has it she's not Jørgen's. You just don't know, around here.

Genz toys with the unexpected in ways that transcend the film's various genres. These include the Western too, since Jørgen wears a ten-gallon hat and, as odd and menacing at times as Dennis Hopper's bad guy in Blue Velvet, he winds up in a "shoot out" against Robert. Only, in truly Danish style, the shots exchanged are of whiskey, alternating with chugged bottles of beer. (Another bar regular's face is a dead ringer for Hopper's.)

Robert's an outsider but it's never fully clear whether Skarrild wants to exclude him or lock him in forever as one of theirs. His tarnished rep appeals to them because the town's own morals are generally shaky. There's a running card game of the self-declared "quack" Dr. Zerlang (Lars Brygmann) and other local fixtures, who want Robert for a fourth at the card table. "Everyone knows everything but says nothing" about you in this town, is the rule, and so they know Robert's secrets when he arrives and soon know more about the nightmare Ingerlise and Jørgen force upon him, which he may eventually resolve, or make worse; he must let the town decide. The town has the last laugh, but so do we.

Adapted from a novel by Erling Jepsen, Terribly Happy has been richly rewarded in Denmark for its skillful direction, cinematography, writing, and acting. Henrik Ruben Genz obviously had fun making this. It probably didn't hurt much that both he and Erling Jepsen are from the South Jutland region.

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