Terribly Happy (Oscilloscope Pictures, NR)

Terribly Happy is a superbly rewarding film but it’s not for everyone particularly since it offers no feel-good message or historical lessons (both favorites of the Oscar voters).


Terribly Happy is a comedy of misdirection of the blackest hue which ends not with marriage but with a reconciliation to the realities of life and a deceptively profound statement about how communities function. It’s also a highly literate film which tweaks conventions of the Western, film noir and horror flick and is populated with characters that seem aware that they are playing roles in a film but are also believable as residents of a town in the back of beyond.

Robert Hanson (Jakob Cedergren) is a police officer from Copenhagen who’s been transferred to Skarrild, a small town in Jutland. He’s there for a working vacation while he recovers from a nervous breakdown as well as a temporary banishment from his usual beat due to some dark events in his past. Skarrild is a rundown place full of suspicious residents who are not grateful for the arrival of this city slicker: as one of them puts it, they like to handle things in their own way. Their way includes hitting children in the face and depositing anything which causes trouble in the bog just outside town. A deadpan voiceover as the film opens recounts the fate of a cow blamed for causing an epidemic of miscarriages in the town and it is implied more than once that a bog which can make a cow disappear would have no problem doing the same with a person.

The main police business in Skarrild appears to be shoplifting (that’s where hitting kids in the face comes in—it’s much more convenient than filing a police report) and domestic violence. The main practitioner of the latter appears to be Jørgen Buhl (Kim Bodnia), who beats his wife Ingelise (Lene Maria Christensen)—or maybe he doesn’t and her wounds are self-inflicted. We’re confused not only by hearing conflicting but plausible versions of the same events but also because although Jørgen seems to be cast as the villain of the story he wears a white shirt and hat, contradicting the familiar iconography of the Western.

Jørgen and Ingelise have a strange, almost silent daughter Dorthe (Mathilde Maack) who wheels her teddy bear through the streets at night in a pram with remarkably squeaky wheels. The town doctor (Lars Brygmann) is an uncertain ally and the local bartender (Bodil Jørgensen) is unhelpful with her comments comparing Robert’s drinking habits to that of his predecessor, another city boy whose fate is never articulated. Director Henrik Ruben Genz, who also wrote the screenplay with Dunja Gry Jensen from a novel by Erling Jepsen, uses odd framings and camera angles to mirror Robert’s confusion and throw the viewer off balance. Music by Lars C. Brun contributes to the genre confusion, as does cinematography by Jørgen Johansson: sometimes we get the dark lighting and tense music of a horror film, sometimes the wide open vistas and cheerful soundtrack of a Western.

Terribly Happy was the official Danish selection for this year’s Academy Awards and won numerous awards on the international circuit. I’m not surprised that it did well in many markets but I’m also not surprised that it was not a finalist for the Foreign Language Oscars. Terribly Happy is a superbly rewarding film but it’s not for everyone particularly since it offers no feel-good message or historical lessons (both favorites of the Oscar voters). But if you are willing to enter the world of the film and go where it leads you it offers a supremely rewarding experience. | Sarah Boslaugh


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