Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review: Anne Sewitsky's "Happy, Happy"

Happy, Happy (Sykt lykkelig). 2010. Directed by Anne Sewitsky. Written by Ragnhild Tronvoll. Produced by Synnove Horsdal. Cinematography by Anna Myking. Edited by Christoffer Heie. Music by Stein Berge Svendsen. Art direction by Camilla Lindbraten. Sound design by Gunn Tove Gronsberg.

Cast: Agnes Kittelsen (Kaja), Joachim Rafaelsen (Eirik), Maibritt Saerens (Elisabeth), Henrik Rafaelsen (Sigve), Oskar Hernæs Brandsø (Theodor), Ram Shihab Ebedy (Noa), Heine Totland (Choral director).

(Note: this review has also been cross-posted on Twitch.)

Anne Sewitsky’s debut feature Happy, Happy, winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a story involving two couples, infidelity, and marital strife coming to the surface after lengthy repression, that goes down smoothly and easily – in fact, far too smoothly and easily, which is the film’s main problem.  Good performances by the four principal actors are subsumed in a scenario that dials the cutesiness and whimsy up to 11, which sits uneasily with material that seems as if it should be more traumatic for the characters.  But again, it all goes down easily – not for nothing was this film chosen as Norway’s foreign film Oscar entry.

Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen), a woman who is ever the eternal optimist, despite her rather distant and chilly relationship with husband Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen), with whom she hasn’t made love in a year – the resistance is all on his end.   Another couple, Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), moves into the house across from them.  All of them live in a remote town, a snowy place far from the city.  There doesn’t seem to be much to do in this place, and the main activity in town comes courtesy of the local church; Sigve and Elisabeth were choir singers where they came from, and they join the local choir also.  They play board games soon after they meet, revealing the dynamics of both couples.  Playing “The Couples Game,” especially, causes Kaja to reveal their lack of a sexual relationship to the other couple, and to reveal herself as someone extremely lacking in guile and completely an open book to everyone.  Her neediness and clinging to her husband, as Eirik cruelly tells her one night, is the cause of his recent lack of attraction.  However, there is another reason Eirik has distanced himself from his wife, which becomes evident in due course.  Similarly, Sigve and Elisabeth moved to this remote place because of a troubled aspect of their marriage that has lain beneath the surface of their outwardly placid demeanor, but which is revealed through their interactions with their neighbors.

All of this sounds like the premise of a Bergmanesque study of troubled marriage (a sort of Scenes from Two Marriages), but Sewitsky and her screenwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll opt for a much lighter tone.  This is an interesting narrative tactic, and a potentially intriguing one; unfortunately, this choice renders the proceedings rather saccharine, especially with the device of a male choir that pops up frequently between scenes with songs commenting on the action, functioning as a gospel-singing Greek chorus.  Another major miscalculation is the subplot involving Sigve and Elisabeth’s adopted Ethiopian son Noa (Ram Shihab Totland), and Kaja and Eirik’s son Theodor (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø).  While their scenes seem intended to represent how their parent’s problems are passed down to their children, they too often (especially when they play “master and slave”) come off as gratuitous, unnecessary distractions from the main storyline.

Happy, Happy opened September 16 in New York and Los Angeles. For more information, visit Magnolia Pictures' website.

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