Terribly Happy or Frygtelig lykkelig is set in a tiny town in South Jutland, Denmark’s back of beyond, stranded in the flat marshy lowlands, encircled by bog. This is where Copenhagen cop Robert is being sent after some unspecified personal incident that has left him in disgrace, with prescription pills and an estranged wife. What he finds is a closed-off world with its own ways, where the locals would have preferred a marshal with local blood, getting the nearest city police involved is undesirable and people have a knack of “disappearing” into the sucking bog.
Robert is a sympathetic presence, wary, quiet and apparently prepared to meet the local customs halfway. But the weird atmosphere soon has him entirely subsumed, as he is drawn into a drama of marital abuse, adultery and murder. The local residents are a colourful gallery of eccentrics and grotesques (though we see only a few of them) and the uncanny isolation is perfectly captured by repeated scenes set at the town’s edge, a short street ending in a blank wall of fog; when we venture into the desolate beyond, it is to a flat barren landscape, northern cousin to the rural nowheres of Dumont and the Dardennes. The ease with which Robert aligns to the moral compass of the town sidesteps many standard fish-out-water tropes and the film reveals itself to be more of an individual’s descent into a personal hell, via a really bad decision and a most unfortunate mistake.
The problem is, however, that Robert is such a blank at the film’s centre. For the most part his role is to watch and wait and occasionally to react as the narrative screws tighten; when the time comes for him to act, his decisions seem almost involuntary, with characterisation fatally understated, both in performance and script. He gives little away and his back story is murky to the point of being arbitrary, the information parceled out serving solely to flip-flop the audience’s impression of him as a decent guy, or as a borderline psychotic, and whilst this gives a certain unpredictability to the narrative it makes it fundamentally hard to care. The sole moment of identification is when Robert is confronted by the oversized glistening faces of the town’s doctor, priest and shopkeeper at the end and we realise that this is not so much hell as purgatory. But by this time his character has taken on the slightly cartoonish aspect of the locals, an uneasy balance of deadpan absurdity, sinister grotesquery and skewed morality.
If Robert’s character remains rather hollow, drawn to a template but not filled in, the isolated location feels a bit generically second-hand in the same way; the drab brown landscape never quite allowed to become a character in its own right after the opening montage (the bog is an effective presence, but a rather obvious parallel for the murky morals and unfathomable weirdness of the town). Unfulfilled elements abound, from the abrupt departure of the most interesting and sympathetic character (aside, that is, from a very cute cat), to the eerie squeak of a child’s pram pushed through the quiet night-time streets as an easy source of unease.
The film starts off with a Lynchian air of malaise behind the picket fence (or in this case the obsessively neat washing lines) but as the thriller mode escalates it turns rather blatantly into Blood Simple – the fat sweaty husband sits and glares malevolently like Dan Hedaya before a sudden act of violence and headlight-lit midnight road scene; this over-indebtedness casts one’s mind back to the suspect “based on true events” prefatory title, and subsequently undercuts an otherwise rather good effect: blood seeps through the carpet under pressure of a policeman’s shoe, conjuring the oozing dread of the Hotel Earle and the Coens’ skill with the appalling close-up. The cumulative result is a patchwork of effects and trappings that never quite find a singular cinematic identity.
It should be stressed, however, that all this is carried off with a certain amount of style, half-hearted editing tics offset by attractively exaggerated camerawork, with some nicely skewed angles, cold hard light for the day and an unhealthy orange illumination at night. If the film is disappointing, that’s partly because it skirts with being excellent. But in the end, as enjoyable as it is, it fails in the same way as the soundtrack, which alternates largely between reverbed single guitar lines, the skeleton of a soft rock song that bursts into lamely vocalised life over the end credits, and a combination of strings and timpani which broods with a rather obvious ominousness; the attempt at mood is effectively achieved but retains a borrowed aura, a sense of under-development and a lack of real feeling.
Terribly Happy is playing at the Laemmle Sunset in LA and the Laemmle Playhouse, Pasadena from February 12, and staggered to various other theaters around the country – find out more at Oscilloscope Laboratories (it’s MCA’s gang, and pretty cool).