Monday, February 15, 2010

Noir in the Jutlands

Terribly Happy is a Danish film by Henrik Ruben Genz, based on a novel by Danish writer Erling Jepsen. It’s a noir western mystery of the Hitchcock school via the Coen Brothers.

The film has cows, odd children, sullenly uncommunicative townspeople, a bully in a cowboy hat, a nightly poker game, a bar fight fought with beer and shots instead of fists, and a scene in a men’s room with a trough urinal as the center of the action. It is present day, but this town, these people are so cut off that it could be half a century, even a century in the past.

The countryside is unpleasant: It has no depth, no heights, no trees, mountains or even hills. It is reminiscent ­-- in a wet way -- of the endless fields and right-angled junctions of North By Northwest. Wetly because of the bog. Anything can sink into the oblivion of the bog. Can’t it.

Back to the beginning. The film is in such unsaturated color it could easily have been shot in black and white. It ends as it begins, quietly, in a town you not only don’t want to live in, you don’t want to visit, or even pass through. It is in the Jutlands, the Danish end of nowhere, a place that inspires depression.

The new ‘Marshall’ is Robert, played by Jakob Cedergren (when this film is redone in the U.S., by Genz, I’m hoping for Damien Lewis in this role, despite how well Cedergren played it), is driven into town by a higher ranking officer from a larger town nearby. The new Marshall has been banished from Copenhagen where he apparently did something so awful his wife won’t let him speak to their daughter. If he does well here, though, it is implied that he could, someday, go home again, at least to Copenhagen.

There’s no one on the puddle-filled streets when he arrives. The first thing he does is step into the mud. He does that a lot. There is an interesting focus on boots here. Boots forgotten, boots borrowed, boots returned. Boots sucked into the muck. Boots cursed.

The first person Robert meets tells him that the fellow who should be running the empty bicycle repair shop has disappeared, as people do around here. This is Ingerlise, the blonde therefore bad girl of the piece. Her daughter is Dorthe, who walks the empty streets of the town with her baby carriage. Ingerlise is married to the town bully in a cowboy hat, Jorgen. Then there’s the town doctor (Lars Brygmann), who came for a few months and has stayed for years. He’s been the caretaker for the last marshall’s cat (billed as “Katten”) and delivers it to the new marshall. This man is creepy, clearly bad news the moment he walks in the door. Bad news as he plays cards, sweating, with the shopkeeper (Anders Hove)and the preacher (Henrik Lykkegaard). It’s a 3-handed game since the old marshall left. Robert does not play cards. Shame, card players say.

A fuss is made over a juvenile shoplifter but not the blatantly abusive husband Jorgen (Kim Bodnia). Jorgen cheats on his wife, his presence in the bar frightens people, he sneers, if he had a moustache he would twirl it. The whole town knows he beats up Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen), and no one intervenes or contradicts him.

Ingerlise, of course, insinuates herself into Robert’s life, wants him to take her away from all this. This is, after all, noir. Yet when a not untypically drunken Jorgen comes to the Marshall’s house to demand her return, after shouting at Robert to keep him away, Ingerlise goes to the door herself, and asks her husband tenderly, “How are you?” She leaves with him, continuing the cycle. She pushes and pulls and manipulates, a typical woman of the noir tradition.

The predictability of this film is merely because it’s noir. Danish noir with the tone of a Western. I can find no particular flaw in the film. I laughed (however inappropriately, as one does at a Coen Brothers film). And I found it absurdly interesting that the word “two” sounds the same in English and Danish. There is something lacking in the film, but I’ve yet to figure out just what. It asks all the right questions --

  • What was the deep dark secret that exiled Robert to this muddy town?
  • Why does Dorthe push her baby doll carriage around the town at odd hours?
  • What does everyone in the town bar know that Robert doesn’t?
  • What is it about those abused indecisive women that gets men like Robert into trouble every time?
The more I think about it, the more the film resonates with me, the more the scenes flash before my mind’s eye. The resolution is highly satisfying. There’s sex, there’s death, guns, fists, a blonde, and mud. Still there’s something worrying me.

Maybe it’s that bog.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, wondering what else may be down there.

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