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Danish 'Terribly Happy' full of odd happenings

Henrik Ruben Genz's tale of a big-city cop sent to a rural town is one of many strange movies from the country.

February 07, 2010|By Mark Olsen

What is it with Danish filmmakers?

From the mad angst of Lars von Trier to the psycho crime films of Nicolas Winding Refn to Mads Brügger's subversively comic excursion in the recent Sundance prize-winning documentary "The Red Chapel," there is something just fundamentally odd about many of the films that make their way to the U.S. from Denmark. "Terribly Happy," which opens Friday in Los Angeles and San Francisco, is no exception. The third feature by 50-year-old Danish filmmaker Henrik Ruben Genz seems all the more unusual for the rather stately pulp elegance of its storytelling. The film comes across almost a bit banal at first, until things go from a little peculiar to really, really, horribly wrong.

As Adam Yauch, the Beastie Boys member and head of Oscilloscope Laboratories, the film's American distributor, said in a statement when his company acquired the film: "It is just further proof that Danish people are clearly out of their minds."

It all begins when a cop (Jakob Cedergren) from the big city of Copenhagen is reassigned to a tiny rural town after a breakdown. Though things on his new beat seem bucolic and boring, he soon begins to sense there is something more going on, and that people often go to the marshlands just outside of town and don't come back. After he gets involved with a woman (Lene Maria Christensen) who is married to the town bully (Kim Bodnia), things begin to go off-track. (The devilish jolts of what happens next require a certain evasiveness in plot detail.)

The film, which has drawn frequent comparisons to the Coen brothers' first film, "Blood Simple," was a commercial hit in Denmark and took seven prizes at the Robert Awards (the Danish Oscars), including best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay, as well as five wins at the Bodil Awards, Denmark's critics' prizes. The film was also Denmark's entry for this year's foreign-language Academy Awards race but failed to be nominated. Genz was previously nominated for an Academy Award for his short film "Teis & Nico" in 1998.

"Terribly Happy," with a screenplay by Genz and Dunja Gry Jensen, is based on a novel by Erling Jepsen. Genz and Jepsen grew up across the street from each other in the small town of Gram, near where parts of "Terribly Happy" were shot in the town of Højer. (Interior scenes were shot on Copenhagen soundstages.)

Genz and Jepsen had not seen each other for more than 15 years when Genz, having become a successful director of Danish television, contacted Jepsen, one of Denmark's most popular novelists, regarding his novel "The Art of Crying." The film rights weren't available, but Jepsen told Genz of another idea he had, about a Copenhagen cop sent to the Southern Jutland region where they grew up. As Jepsen wrote the story, he would send it along to Genz chapter by chapter.

"I would call him after he sent each chapter," said Genz during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "I'd ask him, 'Where are you going with this? Tell me. What are you up to?' He'd always say, 'Wait and see. I have some ideas.' "

The film itself has that same sense of suspense and surprise, and repeatedly pulls the rug out from under viewers as to who are the bad guys and good guys.

Genz jokes that he had to film the story a few towns over from where he grew up because "people would have said, 'You don't . . . in your own bed.' "

Nevertheless, the film does capture the isolation of small-town life, albeit filtered through a sensibility that is part noir, part western and pure Danish movie crazydom.

"It's how it is down there," said Genz. "They don't want to be interfered with. We don't want strangers, it's hard to get in, there's a collective silence freezing people out. Of course it's dramatized, there's no bog where we put the bodies, but on a certain mental, emotional level there is."

'Longlegs' opens

"Daddy Longlegs" had its North American premiere as part of the recent Sundance Film Festival and immediately became available on Sundance Selects VOD, where it will play through Feb. 26. The film, directed by brothers Ben and Joshua Safdie, is loosely based on their experiences as children with an absentee father.

In the film, a wayward father (filmmaker Ronald Bronstein in a debut performance of remarkable energy, courage and nuance) gets custody of his two sons two weeks a year, and he tries, and mostly fails, to make the most of their time together. The high-spirited boys are played by Sage and Frey Ranaldo, sons of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo. They were cast after Joshua Safdie saw them walking down a New York City street with their mother, Leah Singer, who, appropriately enough, plays their mother in the film.

The film represents an unexpected meeting of two cinematic sensibilities. The Safdies, through their Red Bucket Films collective, have become known for their whimsical, fleetingly nostalgic style in numerous short films and Josh's feature "The Pleasure of Being Robbed," whereas Bronstein's "Frownland" is perhaps one of the most devastating depictions of angst and anxiety captured on film. There is no immediate juncture between them all, and yet somehow "Daddy Longlegs" feels like a genuine point of intersection, a delightfully surprising product of long talks and open collaboration.

"I don't know how these guys steered it," Bronstein said in an interview at Sundance. "They always made me feel like I had the freedom. And yet when I watch the work, I see I've completely become this thing that is their father, and it's much more tied to their experiences than it is to my own."

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