Big Screen Berkeley: “Terribly Happy” is awfully good

Kim Bodnia in "Terribly Happy"

There’s a new Danish film coming to town on Friday, and it’s the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

Terribly Happy tells the tale of Copenhagen copper Robert (Jakob Cedergren, looking a bit like a young Donald Sutherland), reassigned after a bitter divorce and a nervous breakdown to the remote Jutland town of Skarrild. Other than some shoplifting, the worst thing that happens in Skarrild is domestic abuse—specifically, the beating of willowy blonde Ingelise (Lene Maria Christensen) by cowboy-hat wearing hubby Jorgen (Kim Bodnia).

Robert’s attempts at intervention run adrift on the rocks of local complacency, but when Ingelise sends him unmistakable signals hinting at her unprofessional interest in him, things get very, very complicated indeed. Blending elements of film noir and the western, Terribly Happy builds to a quietly horrifying conclusion, in which Robert — on the verge of escaping back to Copenhagen — finds himself hopelessly and definitively trapped.

For the last decade or so, Danish film has, for better or worse, been defined and dominated by Lars von Trier and his Dogme Manifesto. Terribly Happy is a reassertion of a more traditional filmmaking model, and it’s successful on almost all fronts. Jorgen Johansson’s cinematography is precise, well-framed, but never flashy, while Kare Bjerko’s elegiac score remains front and center without overwhelming the proceedings.


Though the story (based on a novel by Erling Jepsen, and adapted for the screen by Dunja Fry Jepsen and director Henrik Ruben Genz) asks the viewer to suspend disbelief one too many times, it’s still a neat and cleverly written confection that will keep you engaged and guessing until the final reel.

There’s even that rarest of beasts, the credit-roll song that doesn’t seem needlessly tacked on for no good reason: Riders on the Freeway, an anthemic country-tinged rocker performed by Danish band Kira and the Ghost Riders, provides a welcome exhalation of relief after the previous hour and a half of edge-of-your-seat tension.

Terribly Happy, which won numerous awards on the festival circuit and was Denmark’s official submission for 2010’s Best Foreign Film Academy Award, opens at the Shattuck Cinemas on Friday February 12.

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If you’ve been enjoying PFA’s series Before “Capraesque”: Early Frank Capra, there’s one more major treat in store before it wraps up. An unheralded classic of silent cinema, Capra’s The Matinee Idol screens at 2:00 pm on Sunday February 14.


Considered lost for decades until a print was unearthed in 1992 at the Cinematheque Francaise, the film stars Bessie Love as Ginger Bolivar, lead actress in a travelling troupe that ends up on Broadway thanks to the machinations of popular vaudevillian Don Wilson (Johnnie Walker). The film is lovely to look at — Columbia did a superb job of restoring the Parisian print — but Love is the main reason to scope out The Matinee Idol.

Later moving to England, where she enjoyed a long career as a character actress and bit player, Love was no purse-lipped Blanche Sweet: in this film she’s the quintessential modern woman; brash, bold, confident and undimmed by the passage of over seventy years. A word of warning, however — blackface is an essential plot element in the film. Some things, thankfully, have changed over the intervening decades.