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On Movies: 'Terribly Happy' is terrifically taut

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 15, 2010 - The droll and unpredictable "Terribly Happy" begins with a classic set-up - a new marshal comes to town. The plot device is so familiar that it's almost mythic, as if risen from the collective human unconscious. And at times the principal protagonist in this Danish dark comedy - make that very dark comedy -- seems to be trapped in a Freudian nightmare, a dream world not subject to the safe expectations of daily waking life.

But Robert Hanson (Jakob Cedergren), the new marshal, is not dreaming. He's just a stranger in a small town in rural Denmark, one with its own ways. And he has to learn those ways, or he very likely will end up in "the bog" townspeople keep referring to in hushed tones, like Transylvanian villagers muttering about "the castle."

Robert, who seems generally baffled by the universe in all its perceivable manifestations, has made a mess of family life and police work in Copenhagen and has been exiled to a tiny town in Southern Jutland, a town with one crossroads and one saloon and one truly dangerous woman, Ingelise (Lene Maria Christensen). Ingelise is sexy and on the make and married to the town bully, a classic Trifecta of trouble.

From early in the movie, we are aware that the tension between Robert and the bully is going eventually to explode in violence, but the plot keeps twisting away from this main route in sometimes surprising ways. Director Henrik Ruben Genz, working from a novel by Erling Jepsen, brings comedy and violence together in a style that is reminiscent of the work of the Coen brothers. And like the Coens, Genz likes to play around with film noir and spaghetti western motifs and images - his oblique camera angles and unorthodox close-ups show us a world that is out of kilter and hard to fathom.

"Terribly Happy" is slyly entertaining, but it also deals in interesting ways with the notion of existential choice. Don't worry, there are no lectures in Danish on Kierkegaard. But from the moment he arrives in town, Robert is faced with a series of crucial decisions, some of them quite difficult to make. At times, he tries to avoid choosing one clear path or another, but evasion is a path, too. Bad things happen to him, but they happen in part because of things he has chosen to do, or not to do.

Director Henrik Ruben Genz reportedly has been hired for an American remake of "Terribly Happy." I suppose that's good news - at least the producers are bringing in the original director - but there's absolutely nothing wrong with the Danish version, except, I suppose, that it's in Danish. I see no reason to wait a couple of years to see what may or may not happen with the remake. Hollywood is notorious for bringing in promising foreign directors and turning them into hacks. And Hollywood is not much for nuance and ambiguity - they could end up turning "Terribly Happy" into "Happily Happy." Or "Terribly Terrible."

Opens Friday, April 16


The veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio ("Good Morning, Night") skillfully mixes newsreels and drama in the visually stunning, somewhat overlong story of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini's rise to power as seen through the eyes of his former mistress Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). She was seduced by the young Mussolini, and bore him a son. After Mussolini had seduced the rest of Italy as well, he tried to get rid of Ida, but she was so adamant in her public insistence that she was his wife and that her son was Benito Jr. that he had her thrown in a mental institution. She kept fighting for recognition, refusing to bow to severe mistreatment or offers of a buyout.

"Vincere" is so beautifully filmed, with much use of intense close-ups emerging from mostly black screens, that it is worth seeing, but the film is more than two hours long and it probably tells American audiences more than they want to know about Mussolini's obsessed mistress.

Opens Friday, April 16

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.