Frygtelig lykkelig (Terribly Happy) (2008)

Director: Henrik Ruben Genz

Screenplay: Henrik Ruben Genz

Normally I’m someone who hates the idea of watching a foreign film only to automatically compare it to something similar from Hollywood.  More often than not there’s no reason to do it – it’s little more than cramming filmmaking into a narrow spectrum in which the film is either familiar to our Hollywood sensibilities and therefore good, or isn’t, in which case it’s unjustly relegated to little more than “that arty stuff they make in Europe”.

This time however, I can’t resist.  I’m sorry.  It’s just that Danish filmmaker Henrik Ruben Genz has so aptly channeled the feel and look of the Coen brother’s Blood Simple with his latest film Frygtelig lykkelig, that I would be foolish not to mention it.  Besides, there are far worse things for a filmmaker than to be compared to the Coen brothers.

Frygtelig lykkelig follows Jakob Cedergren (Robert Hansen), a Copenhagen cop who has just been demoted to working as the marshall in a tiny, remote Danish town.  It’s apparent right from the start that Jakob’s gone overboard in some capacity and is now grimly facing banishment from his life in Copenhagen.  The town he finds himself stationed in is an odd one, with its methodical and routine driven inhabitants giving off subtle hints of  expectation toward Jakob’s place as marshall.

Jakob quickly becomes friendly with Ingerlise Buhl (Lene Maria Christensen), the sad wife of abusive drunkard and all around town bad-ass, Jørgen (Kim Bodnia).  Jørgen Buhl, with his cowboy hat, beer belly and bad reputation is as Coen of a character as they come, and his presence in the first two acts of the film help to slowly unroll a sticky and dark little tale of comeuppance, justice and misguided passion.  There’s an unspoken code of ethics in this muddy little town and all problems can ostensibly be solved by a trip to the local bog.

If all of this sounds more than a little odd to you, that’s because it is.  In fact, it’s exactly this ability to sustain the oddities of the film, while steering them clear from weird for the sake of being weird, that Genz handles so well.  There’s a creeping notion hanging over the film’s first two acts that things are not what they seem and that before all is said and done, the audience will be privy to both the town and Jakob’s darkest secrets.

Unfortunately, the film’s final act loses the momentum that the previous acts held, either by leaving questions unanswered or by providing answers that don’t match the initial corresponding levels of build up.  And that’s a problem.

Still, the isolation of the town as seen through cinematographer Jørgen Johansson’s lense is splendid in its understated beauty and the entire cast maintains the film’s well orchestrated feel for a place where strange happenings are so regular, that they’ve ceased to be regarded as strange.  As a whole, Frygtelig lykkelig captures great levels of tension in minimal surroundings, just as Blood Simple did more than two decades before.  But for its part, Frygtelig lykkelig just doesn’t satisfy on enough levels to live up to the excitement it produces in its first hour.

-mike

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Filed under Denmark, European Cinema, Mike

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