You’ll Like My Mother: Matthiesen’s Debut a Gentle Giant
Director Mads Matthiesen developed his 2007 short film Dennis into his feature debut, Teddy Bear, a quiet character study about a shy professional body builder looking for love. At times generating a beautiful quiet melancholy, the film ultimately exudes a determined, laconic ambiance, one that drifts it through a running time like an overly familiar tune, one that holds your attention even though you already know exactly how it’s going to play out.
Dennis (Kim Kold), a 38 year old body builder, lives alone with his mother, Ingrid (Elsebeth Steentoft) in a suburb outside of Copenhagen. It’s immediately apparent that his petite mother is a domineering and controlling woman, exasperated and upset that her hulking son would go to the movies with friends and not leave his cell phone on for when she calls. The mellow, Herculean man assuages her as best he can, but their quiet universe is upset when his uncle brings back a woman he met in Thailand and marries her. After clearing some thick brush for his recently married relative, Dennis is treated to a paid trip to Thailand in order to seek his own bride. However, Dennis has to lie to his mother about the trip, fibbing that he will be gone in Dusseldorf for a week to attend a bodybuilding competition. And even that riles her up to such an extent that she has to retreat to her bedroom, refusing to properly say goodbye or even pick up the phone when he calls to check on her.
While in Thailand, Dennis meets up with the bar owner that set his uncle up with his wife, but it’s obvious that the bar is a front for prostitution, and the girls he introduces to Dennis are much younger and far more experienced than the meek and, perhaps, virginal hulk. Scared and put off by the women he meets, approaching him as they do their other clients, as men looking for sex, Dennis seeks solace in a gym he stumbles upon and befriends the woman that runs it, named Toi (Lamaiporn Hougaard). She’s not really into physical fitness, but took over managing the gym after her husband unexpectedly died. As the two get to know each other, romance blossoms, and the forthcoming Toi expresses interest in following Dennis to Denmark. But what will mother think about all that?
There’s a wonderfully quiet dignity about the stoic but sad Dennis that director Matthiesen manages to capture just right, avoiding a sentimental schmaltz that could have easily berated the sensitive relationship that predictably develops. At worst, every frame delivers exactly what you imagine to do, but at best, an unmistakable tenderness evolves—you want to see what Dennis manages to do. One could have hoped Matthiesen would have addressed the sex tourism quotient a bit more frankly, those words actually only uttered by the spiteful Ingrid. There is a definitely an element of exploitation concerning Dennis’ uncle, a man that describes the Thai people as “gentle and loving, over there,” and they “can be reached” much easier than the people here. Why it is that they “can be reached” is not a question that’s pondered. While the romance that develops between Dennis and Toi is believable, the most anticipated climax is the one involving his relationship with another woman—his mother. It’s in the second half of the feature that Ingrid really reveals the true depth of her manipulation and unhinged behavior.
Actress Elsebeth Steentoft is excellent, a regal gray haired beauty, venomous and pathetic all in once instance. And of course, Teddy Bear wouldn’t work at all if it weren’t for a meditative and poignant turn from its lead, Kim Kold, which he certainly delivers (newcomer Kold also appeared in another great Dane’s work, Ole Bornedal’s 2009 film, Deliver Us From Evil). Screenwriter Martin Zandvliet (now a burgeoning director of his own, his first feature, Applause, 2009, a stunning showcase for Paprika Steen), who also wrote the short, and director Matthiesen, manage to hand us a familiar formula with some finely wrought characters we can’t help but wish the best for.
Reviewed on June 23 at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival – International Showcase.