Thursday, July 15, 2010

TERRIBLY HAPPY (Frygtelig Lykkelig, 2008)

Henrik Ruben Genz's film took home most of the major Danish film awards for its year of release, and was Denmark's official entry for the Academy Awards. The box cover for the Oscilloscope Laboratories DVD touts the film as a neo-noir with something of the spirit of David Lynch and the Coen Brothers in it. It's really neither as out there as a Lynch film nor as stylish as a Coens film, but you can see how Ganz may have been influenced by them in adapting Erling Jepsen's novel.

Robert (Jakob Cedergren) is a cop who's been reassigned to a small backwater town for reasons only gradually revealed. Your typical big-city Dane looks down on places like this, apparently, where the people have their own peculiar salutation -- "Mojn," which can stand for hello or goodbye. It's one of those burgs where everybody knows everybody and they prefer to take care of things themselves instead of calling in the cops from the nearest city. They'd rather have Robert slap a little shoplifter around than have him file a report, and their preferred last resort is to put things in the town bog. There's a legend about this place that we hear as the film starts. A cow sunk in the bog once, then came back mutated. The townsfolk blamed it for mad cow disease and the infertility of local women. They killed it, put it back in the bog, and the problems went away. If they're talking about mad cow disease, that's a recent legend, and just the sort you know you have to bear in mind as the picture progresses.

Above, the bog. Below, the town.

It doesn't take long for Robert, after he flushes his meds down the toilet, to get embroiled in the local drama. Ingeliede (Lene Maria Christensen), the wife of Jorgen the town bully (Kim Bodna), keeps throwing herself at Robert, asking for protection from her husband one moment after he beats her, the next going home peacefully with him. Ingeliede is playing with fire, since Robert was exiled to this place in part because he pulled a gun on his own wife and threatened to kill her. He resists temptation for a while, but he gives in in her bedroom, with Jorgen dozing drunkenly in the hallway after another beating. When he hears Jorgen stir, Ingeliede screams and Robert panics. Before long there's a body to deal with, but the town "quack" tries to paper things over by calling the death an accident. The rest of the people in town don't buy it, but they blame the wrong person, whom Robert has to save from being forced into the bog, despite the person's own warning that "you're making a mistake." Robert probably should have listened....

Jakob Cedergren as Robert, the troubled "marshall" of a troubled town.

Maybe I was in the wrong mood when I watched Terribly Happy. I can't really fault the filmmaking or the acting, and the location work really sells the sparse, squishy desolation of that squalid town, but I also couldn't help feeling that this was an utterly generic film without any distinctive local character. The fact that Robert's job title is translated as "marshall," along with Jorgen's preference for cowboy hats and another character's John Deere cap only enhanced my feeling that this may as well have been an American movie, and that's not what I'm looking for when I see a foreign film on the library shelf. All the mumbo-jumbo about the bog and the quirky bits like the little girl pushing her cart late at night and the cat that says "Mojn" left me feeling that Ganz's movie really took place in "movie land" rather than Denmark or America. That may just mean that the writing, the direction and the acting weren't strong enough to make this feel like a new experience the way any number of equally derivative but more compelling movies manage to feel. Someone else who watches this may think differently, however, so I neither recommend it nor condemn it. I can't say I was terribly happy with it, but it wasn't terrible, either.

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