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Film Review

Terribly Happy

A Danish director (and co-script writer), Henrik Ruber Genz, has given us a black comedy/thriller, with a level of tension that has rarely been surpassed. Much more of a thriller than comedy, and clearly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, Genz has out Coened the Coen Brothers. Robert, a naive young policeman from Copenhagen, is assigned as the "marshall" to a small isolated farming village located in a flat featureless part of Denmark. He is haunted by something serious that is alluded to but not mentioned until late in the film. His superior, driving him to the town, assumes that this new duty will give him some much needed recuperation time and help him recover from a serious depression. But although sleepy on the surface, the town is right out of David Lynch's imagination, populated by very weird Danes, and filled with secrets. A narrator relates a story about the area while they are driving into town, and it is not a happy tale. Robert settles into the small police station, and in the local bar experiences the suspicion and hostility of the locals. He gets a call from a shop owner, who has caught a shoplifter. The shop owner tells Robert to smack the young teenager, but Robert is appalled, and simply warns him. Then an attractive woman, Ingelise, walks into the station, complaining that her husband has been beating her. She is aggressively flirty, showing him a scar on her chest as proof of her beatings. He says there is nothing he can do unless she is willing to file a complaint. She refuses, afraid of her husband Jorgen. Jorgen, the town bully, is mean, drunk or sober, and intimidates everyone. Up to now, Terribly Happy seems to follow the classic American western: the new marshall sent to tame a town under the control of the bad guys.

Robert is lonely, and tries repeatedly to call his family in Copenhagen, but his wife refuses to answer the phone, and later leaves a message stating that she will not permit him to talk to his daughter because he makes her cry, alluding to what Robert has done. But he becomes comfortable in his routine and is more accepted by the locals. At times, usually in the evening, a cute little girl pushes her baby carriage, with stuffed animals, around the town, but with a creepy effect. The townspeople nod knowingly as she goes by, understanding why she is out alone so late. Later, while Robert is hanging up his laundry, Ingelise appears, shows him how the townspeople hang laundry (socks next to socks, etc), and they nearly kiss. Robert is hooked. Meanwhile, the town doctor, living across the street, has his own secrets, and discovers why Robert has been reassigned to the country.

The story, riveting and complicated to begin with, begins to go in totally different directions than expected, with surprise piled on surprise, yet coherent. The editing is very tight, and the film becomes ever more tense. This is buttressed by the music, often a steel guitar background, almost a Danish version of a western soundtrack. In fact there is a drinking contest in the bar that is right out of a western. Acting is uniformly outstanding, and the cinematography equally excellent, with many unusual angles. The shots of the bleak, flat countryside are in their own way, beautiful.

Terribly Happy is a tremendously accomplished film, and I was awed by the way Genz was able to maintain such tension through all 100 minutes. Loved it! The camera work makes this film so much better on a big screen. Just opened this weekend at the Lumiere, so may not be around more than a few weeks.

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