' ' Cinema Romantico: Happy, Happy

Monday, February 13, 2012

Happy, Happy

When you think of a place "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" you, of course, think of Judy Garland in black and white on a Kansas farm with a cairn terrier looking on and she, in turn, makes you imagine a lilting place where "skies are blue and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true." But sometimes when you hear the same song, as you do at a particularly delicate moment in Anne Sewitsky's first feature film, you don't think of any of those things. Sometimes you think of endless snow banks and forced socializing and repressed emotions and infidelity and, of course, Greek choruses. Yes, the action in "Happy, Happy" (2011) is punctuated throughout by four men in dapper suits singing old spiritual numbers which as odd as it first may seem actually is quite appropriate when considering at the end of each stanza our various characters need a bit of that old time religion to wash their sins away.

Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) lives with Erik (Joachim Rafaelsen) and their young son, Theodor (Oskar Hernaes Brandso), in the middle of Norweigan nowhere. Their lives take a seemingly innocent twist when a couple from the city, Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens) and their adopted Ethiopian son, Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy), rent the house next door.

In these early scenes Sewitsky and writer Ragnhild Tronvoll take great care in painting an indelible portrait of each person. Kaja is cheery nearly to the point of a potential migraine - the sort who forces the playing of board games on others whether they like it or not - and perhaps this cheeriness is what has caused Erik to be so shut-off that his first six or seven lines are nothing beyond grunted "Yeahs." Elisabeth and Sigve both seem to have permanent smiles attached, though they are of much different varieties. His is a bemusement at their situation and next-door neighbors, hers is a confusion tinged with sad regret. Kaja ecstatically explains their houses are so close they can flicker the lights at one another to say "hello" or "come on over" and while Elisabeth's response is politely appropriate the viewer can easily glean her unease with all this......cordiality.

Everyone, as they must, is harboring some sort of secret, varying in Shock Factor on the Cinematic Secret Scale. Before long it is revealed that Sigve and Elisabeth have escaped to this remote outpost in the face of her affair, since broken off. Her husband seems oddly unaffected by it, until Kaja, her optimism inevitably shown to be shrouding great loneliness and depression, triggers an affair with him. Erik is so out of touch - routinely escaping to a wooden teepee he has constructed in the backyard and disappearing on hunting trips - he has no inkling of this romance born of desperation and revenge.

And both couples are so out of touch with their own children they fail to note the slightly militant Theodor makes the Ethiopian Noa - gulp - "play slave." This is diabolically uncomfortable, and an evocation of the film's theme - despite not being handled with quite as much nuance as necessary - that shows everyone as being slaves, slaves of their own lives and of the union of marriage.

"Happy Happy" is so comically bleak that even a side trip to the local church for choir practice winds up in an extra-marital crotch grab, which is to say the third act might seem like a cop-out that lives up to the film's title in the wrong way. To these eyes, though, it came across quietly daring, a film unafraid to say that, hey, contrary to an oft-perpetuated belief, sometimes divorce is more saintly and heroic than re-pressing fake smiles to your faces, pitifully clinging to those age-old vows and taking the happy with the sad and vice-versa. Kaja's got (figurative) balls. She says I'm gonna be happy happy. Ya best deal, suckas.


Colin said...

It's so nice to read other reviews of this. I loved it, and I thought Kittelsen was absolutely superb.

Colin @ picknmixflix

Nick Prigge said...

Amen. Norway, man! NORWAY!!! I just can't get enough of their cinema right now.

Colin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin said...

I said exactly the same. I had three Norwegian films on my top 10 foreign language category for 2011 (with Troll Hunter and Headhunters) and A Somewhat Gentle Man nearly made it 4.

Nick Prigge said...

I've got Headhunters in my Netflix queue (though it's currently unavailable). I've never heard of Somewhat Gentle Man but I'm on the case. Thank you!

Have you seen or heard of Turn Me On, Dammit!? That's from Norway and it was in my Top 5 for the year. I love that movie to death. It's getting a limited release in the U.S. next month.


Colin said...

I hadn't, but I'm rectifying that now. I'll watch it in the next couple of days. Thanks!!