Saturday, February 20, 2010

Movies: Frygtelig lykkelig (Terribly Happy)

I'm never ashamed to admit that I've enjoyed a bad movie, but I rarely dislike a good movie. That said, after Terribly Happy ended, I had a long, interesting conversation with my movie pal, which started with my saying, "I didn't like it."

The movie took me places I didn't want to go; it lingered there, and then took me even further against my inclinations, into a bleak world where people can't control their dark passions. I've never denied that these impulses exist, but I don't like to see them indulged.

At the film's start, we find ourselves in flat, boggy outpost, where the amiable bearded policeman Robert has been temporarily stationed, as some kind of punishment. The sole legal presence in a town of 25 grizzled characters who know each other all too well, he's quickly befriended by another outsider, the blonde Ingerlise. With his wife and daughter back in Copenhagen, and for some reason not taking his phone calls, Robert finds himself more and more intrigued by this woman; her crooked teeth are childish and inviting; her downy bosom maternal and comforting.

But like the town itself, Ingerlise has an ugly, public secret. Her husband, Jørgen, beats her regularly; at night, their wide-eyed daughter, wearing a coat and two braids, pushes a squeaking pram through the empty city streets, and everyone knows this means Jørgen is beating Ingerlise.

This conflicted, skittish woman comes to Robert with a combination of desperation and desire; she lacks the confidence to take her daughter and leave on her own, and instead wants Robert to take them away. As Jørgen becomes aware of their relationship, Robert becomes the target of his rage.

We don't trust Ingerlise and desperately want Robert to keep his head down, bide his time, and get the hell out of this strange and horrible place, but like the Hitchcock or Chabrol not-so-innocent innocent, something inside him, which he's tried to crush, is blooming—thriving in this climate. Something flashes in his eyes that scares Ingerlise; he hits her; when she tries to leave his house he traps her, cowering by the door.

We discover why Robert is being punished. Back in Copenhagen, he found his wife cheating on him, and pulled a gun on her. He didn't shoot, but was sent to a psychological treatment center for three months before being posted out in the bog.

Now, we see that Robert is more like Jørgen than we would have liked to believe. One night, while the brute is passed out on the stairs of his home, bottle still in his hand, wife bloody in her bed, Robert gets a phone call and goes to their house. He tiptoes over Jørgen's hulking body, brushes Ingerlise's hair away from her bleeding eye socket. She pulls him to her. We see him struggle at first, but he acquiesces. She pulls him down onto her, hungrily opening his pants. Noisily, she takes him in, as he trembles with desire and fear and confusion. Hearing Jørgen awake on the stairs and calling his wife's name, Robert tells Ingerlise to be quiet, but she won't stop moaning. He muffles her pleasure with a pillow; Jørgen falls back asleep, and once he's sure the danger has passed, Robert moves the pillow. Ingerlise is dead. He has suffocated her.

But this is only the beginning of the nightmare. The townspeople, who always feared Jørgen and never trusted Ingerlise, are happy to belive that the brute killed his wife. In fact, they are more than happy to force Jørgen into the bog at gunpoint, and almost drown that blight in the bog, except that Robert appears on the scene and will not let them.

Though Robert has saved Jørgen's life, the brute isn't exactly grateful. He knows he did not kill Ingerlise, and he suspects Robert. Their dual comes to a climax when Robert awakes in his home to find Jørgen sitting across from him, holding the shirt button Robert lost in Ingerlise's bed. Unable to save himself in any other way, Robert shoots Jørgen. The man takes his time dying, in fact responds to the first bullet in the chest with vociferous laughter. Robert disposes of the body in the bog and falls asleep in his car.

The next morning, the law from the adjacent city pays a visit. Here, we expect everything to be revealed; the blood in the carpet where Jørgen dragged himself across the floor, the true cause of Ingerlise's death, the body of the dead man in the bog. But, as in a dream, everything has been hidden. As the constable walks across Robert's carpet, the submerged blood oozes, but he doesn't see it. At the bog, a body is dredged up, but it's not Jørgen's. Robert, it seems, appears innocent, and as his time is up, he's due to return to Copenhagen.

Across the street from his temporary home lives the town's doctor, a drug-user who has been intimately involved in the plot's workings as a kind of fire-tender, feeding drugs to Ingerlise, calling Robert the night she was beaten (the night she would die), and later writing "cardiac arrest" on her death certificate to protect Robert. This doctor spends his evenings playing Hearts with the town's preacher and shopkeeper; from the film's start, we have seen them putting their cards down on the table. They have long needed a fourth for their game, but Robert insisted from the start that he did not play. At the moment of Robert's gun-shot, when Jørgen exploded with laughter, the film cut to these three individuals, laughing diabolically. When Robert has packed his bags for Copenhagen, and goes across the street to say goodbye to the three at their table, they give him some unfortunate news: they still need a fourth for their card game. They know what has happened. They know what happened back in Copenhagen, and they know what has happened here. They are happy to keep this a secret if he stays, completing their game, but if he leaves, they will ruin him.

We've had a sneaky feeling for awhile now that perhaps Robert isn't posted in a boggy part of the country. He is too like Jørgen, his feelings toward his wife and daughter too reprised in his feelings toward Ingerlise and her daughter, for these relationships to be incidental. Jørgen took too long to die once he was shot; his blood and body were hidden too easily. Even before he died, he gave Robert his boots; seeing Robert standing in his shoes is a hard symbol to miss.

The men at the card table cackle like lunatic inmates, too grimly pleased to keep Robert in their midst. The neighboring constable, who brings Robert to this place at the film's beginning, and leaves him there at the film's end, has the gentle, appeasing smile of a care-taker, pretending not to see what Robert doesn't want him to see. I would propose that everything that has happened has been a projection, a deranged fantasy, a delusion in which Robert's psyche is trying to control, punish, redeem itself. If he succeeds in suffocating his desires and silencing his brutishness, he must accept living forever in this boggy land and in denial.

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