Terribly Happy (Frygtelig lykkelig)
by Del Harvey
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This 2008 Danish import will remind you of a Coen Brothers classic if it were shot by the cinematographic equivalent of Edward Hopper and directed by Henrik Ruben Genz, whose work is largely comprised of quirky, offbeat characters in a style similar to that of David Lynch. Because Terribly Happy is full of those quirky, offbeat characters whose lives are anything but in this dark drama based on author Erling Jepsen’s novel of the same name. They live in a small farming village in the middle of nowhere. A place where, as one character describes it, there is nothing but bogs and cows.
The film begins with the regional police chief driving his new marshall, Robert, to his new post. Robert has done something terrible to be sent to the hinterlands, exiled from Copenhagen’s police force. We will find out over the course of the film; initially, we are introduced to Robert and his reaction to his new environment.
Robert keeps telling himself he has been temporarily reassigned to the provincial Danish town of South Jutland after being accused of professional misconduct in Copenhagen, but this film is all about the lies we live by and the lies we tell ourselves. A by-the-book policeman, Robert begins to sense that the flowery facade of this lonely hamlet masks something truly sinister. In fact, the tight-knit community is full of secrets and deceits, thanks in large part to everyone knowing everything about everyone else, but not being very forthcoming about any of it to the new Constable.
To make things worse, Robert isn’t used to the country life, so when he is soon confronted by the small-town customs of South Jutland he begins to feel as if he’s drifted into some kind of quaint alternate reality. Robert is quickly confused by his suspicion that everything is just a little too perfect, and the more he learns about his new surroundings, the more convinced he becomes that the community harbors a dark and forbidden secret.
At first Robert feels as though he is an outsider, finding resistance at every encounter and simply not fitting in to the ways of the locals. Adding to his sense of foreboding, Robert feels surrounded by bogs and wet, soggy ground everywhere he goes. It is on his first day in town that he meets the seductive Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen), married to town bully Jorgen (Kim Bodnia, The Pusher films). Ingerlise confides in Robert that her husband beats her repeatedly and, while Robert is as tempted by her sexuality as he is by his need for action, he withholds judgment in an effort to better understand the situation.
Like the best Coen Brothers and Lynch films, things soon spiral out of control for our hero. The most enjoyable thing about Terribly Happy are the simple yet effective ways that Genz surprises us, taking an otherwise routine story and injecting it with unexpected twists which never let you down.
Terribly Happy is one of the best films you will see this year. See the original before Hollywood sucks the life out of it with their remake.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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