Karlovy Vary 2008
Something Is Rotten in the Bogs of Jutland
By Harri Römpötti
In American westerns time and time again tall men have ridden into isolated towns to deal archaic justice with six-shooters. Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz' film Terribly Happy (Frygteligt lykkelig) — one of the highlights of the Karlovy Vary competition — has a similar plot but in a contemporary European setting.
Here Robert (Jakob Cedergren), a city cop, is transferred from the capital Copenhagen to the small town of Skarrild in the backwaters of Southern Jutland for sins that aren't revealed at first. The locals, meanwhile, have a strong tradition of taking care of the things by themselves. Troublemakers are disposed of quietly in the surrounding bogs.
The silent treatment by the inhabitants makes it difficult for Robert to keep law and order — especially since this modern marshal is reluctant to use his service pistol.
In the Danish Film Institute's magazine "Film", director Genz has claimed that he doesn't know squat about genres. But most people compare Terribly Happy to westerns and even horror movies.
Maybe that just shows how dominant the American pop culture is around the world. Even a Danish film maker has an atavistic sense of genre conventions regardless of how little he claims to know or care about them.
Anyway, it's easy to see Terribly Happy as playing with the expectations some genres offer. One old standard in horror movies is that of city people at the mercy of beastly rednecks. In Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the locals ate city kids. Or outside the horror genre, in John Boorman's Deliverance, the inbred hicks dealt out their own rough treatment to their urban visitors.
As in most westerns, in Terribly Happy there is a damsel in distress. Ingelise (Lene Maria Christensen) seeks refuge at the police station from her violent husband, Jorgen (Kim Bodnia). Jorgen is the village tough guy who says what goes in the saloon.
That's where the Jutland style of justice is practised through whispered gossip, ostracism and secret violence. Behind the scenes, a power elite, an unholy trinity of town's minister, merchant and doctor, pull the strings. A seat has been reserved for the sheriff at their card table.
And, true to the genre, the saloon provides the setting for the big showdown. But instead of with gunfire, it's fought with shots of whiskey. And instead of bringing peace and quiet to Skarrild, Robert starts to adapt to the local customs.
For his good intentions turn sour quickly, and Robert sinks deeper and deeper into moral corruption. In twenty years Robert might turn into something like Orson Welles' thoroughly rotten character in Touch of Evil.
This descent into Robert's personal heart of darkness is based on an Erling Jepsen novel. Both the author and Genz grew up in Southern Jutland, although the movie's view of the flat marshlands is not realistic. Realism isn't the style of this movie.
As anti-conventional as Terribly Happy is towards some genres, it's a full-bodied thriller. It has moments of very black humour. Genz and the actors deliver the story with an assured and calm storytelling that amplifies the chilling atmosphere under Skarrild's calm surface.
Genz (born 1959) got an Oscar nomination for one of his early short films. Terribly Happy is his third feature. It offers a welcome alternative to Lars von Trier and other wishy-washy Dogme tainted Danes.
Harri Römpötti has been a freelance journalist for over 20 years, specializing in movies, music and comics. His most recent work can be found in the "Helsingin Sanomat".