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New Directors/New Films 2011: Happy, Happy

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New Directors/New Films 2011: <em>Happy, Happy</em>

Unfolding in a snow-beset Norwegian town that ironically could double for the blustery environs of Affliction, Anne Sewitsky’s Happy, Happy indulges in more than its fair share of clichés and predictable narrative decisions, starting with its plot. The story, involving two neighboring couples who passive aggressively or unknowingly stir up and eventually expose each other’s covert longings and buried guilt through a series of activities and encounters, is reminiscent of literally dozens of sometimes caustic, consistently discomfiting independent dramadies. In fact, it wasn’t even the best film to use the premise within the confines of ND/NF: Hospitalité, Koji Fukada’s odd, witty, and essentially timeless parable, involved a similar story, though it took place largely within a single household, and was one of the great triumphs of this year’s program, along with festival favorites Curling and Attenberg.

Unlike Hospitalité, however, Happy, Happy has secured stateside distribution through Magnolia and will see release later this year. The vagaries of foreign distribution is a hornet’s nest that I’d rather not poke at this particular moment, but let it be said that it does not come as a surprise that the pleasant quirks of Ms. Sewitsky’s film were found to be more comforting and marketable than the striking unease of Mr. Fukada’s feature. The reasons are myriad, but the fact that Sewitsky’s film offers a central, compelling female performance by Agnes Kittelsen to show off and point to certainly rings out above others and has been one of the first boxes on the “safe to distribute internationally” checklist for ages now.

This is not to say that Ms. Kittelsen, who worked largely in television prior to this, doesn’t deserve the praise she has received thus far, or the admirations she will undoubtedly receive when the film opens properly. She plays Kaja, an eager-to-please pixie of a schoolteacher who can’t seem to get her brooding husband, Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen), excited enough for a roll in the proverbial hay; he openly blames his lack of interest on a long-gone yeast infection. Enter a pair of cultured and borderline snooty Dutch transplants, Sigve (Henrik Rafaelson) and Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), who take up next door with their adopted Ethiopian son, Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy). Unlike their overly-helpful new neighbors, Sigve and Elisabeth come off as charming and loving despite their privilege, which makes the revelation that they are recovering from an infidelity on Elisabeth’s part all the more shocking.

This partially explains why, at a welcoming dinner, Sigve accepts an unsolicited blowjob from Kaja and quickly begins a torrid affair with her. It might also serve as the answer to why Eirik, a closeted homosexual, thinks that Sigve might have given up on women and is ready to suck face after a midday run. Sadly, it doesn’t make Elisabeth do much of anything and Saerens, another veteran of Norwegian television, is left mainly to brood and endure an outrageous set of events spurred when Sigve and Kaja’s relationship becomes public knowledge.

The tension builds and comes to a head following Kaja’s vocal solo at a local Christmas concert, which may have made for a powerful moment had Sewitsky and screenwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll shown more of their respective personas in the work. With the arguable exception of Kaja, none of the characters, including Kaja and Eirik’s son, Theodor (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø), are given any depth or nuance that transcends their sitcom-friendly archetypes and the film itself, at its heart, is nothing but a compacted season of a Showtime comedy. The humor is dark but earnestly, even embarrassingly so as it goes along, hitting its peak when Theodor and Noa decide to play a multi-level game of “slave.” It’s a hollow provocation that grows tedious and then utterly groan-worthy when a clip of Barack Obama is used as part of the film’s flimsy catharsis.

Theodor and Noa’s game, which involves a whipping segment, mirrors the gaggle of adults who can’t help but remain in their patterns, doomed to relive their own history. But then, it also seems separated from the proper narrative, like a second-stage act meant to dole out jolts of shallowly caustic humor as the amiable perversities of the adults come and pass. On top of this, Sewitsky adds a Greek chorus of sorts, in the guise of a quartet of white dudes in black suits singing American blues and gospel songs who are suddenly cut to intermittently throughout the film. It’s a useless, lazy stylistic curl that can be seen as evidence that the triumph of films like Happy, Happy, which won the Narrative World Cinema Jury Award at the most recent Sundance, is the triumph of cowardice, complacency, and stealth conformity over the bold and the truly bizarre.

Happy, Happy screened as part of this year’s New Directors/New Films.