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Happy, Happy | Review

I ain’t happy/I’m feeling glad

Norway’s official Oscar submission for 2011 (and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance) is the directorial debut of Anne Sewitsky, Happy, Happy. In its native Norwegian the title Sykt Lykkelig literally means ‘insanely’ or ‘sick happy,” and is perhaps a better indication of the morbid, strikingly refreshing depiction of heterosexual marriage in store for its audience. While there are some instances of arguably unnecessary stylistic choices and one poorly resolved subplot, the film features one of the best female performances in cinema this year from relative newcomer, Agnes Kittelsen.

The film opens with a chorus of four white men singing American songs. They pop up intermittently, not unlike in a Greek tragedy. Cut to a warm and fuzzy pink title sequence in the snowy landscape of rural Norway and we’re introduced to Kaia (Kittelsen), an alarmingly sprightly and overly happy personality and her reserved husband Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen) as they nervously await a couple from the city set to rent the home they own, which is snugly adjacent. Kaia greets the new couple, Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens) and Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) like an excited puppy, revealing a sweet naivety when she asks if their adopted African boy Noa has a distinctly African name. Elisabeth is a cold, icy blonde (she reveals herself as one prone to reading in a chair out in the snow), a professional woman that takes an instant dislike to Kaia. As Kaia and Eirik have the new couple over for dinner, it’s obvious that behind Kaia’s terrifyingly happy demeanor there’s a lot of pain and discomfort over her marriage with Eirik. When Sigve and Elisabeth invite them over shortly after, emotions explode over a “couples” game and we quickly learn that Sigve and Elisabeth have moved to the countryside due to Elisabeth’s infidelity and that Eirick hasn’t had sex with Kaia for over a year…and then Kaia performs fellatio on Sigve (yes, we’re at the same dinner party). And while it may seem like that’s giving too much away, it’s really not—there’s more.

While Sewitsky’s use of the singing men seems strange and out of place, much is made of Kaia’s wish to be able to join a choir and sing (Elisabeth and Sigve both sing in the church choir) and after she is shown a little love, she finds the confidence, finally, to do so. Stylistically, one could argue that the chorus of singing men that frequently interrupt the narrative would be something her character could appreciate. But this flourish seems like too much time wasted for too little yield, in the end. But the film’s biggest fault lies in the subplot involving the children of the two couples. Kaia’s son spies a book on slavery and manipulates Noa into playing a marathon game of master and slave. As the film progresses and the drama heightens, this game becomes more violent. While Noa’s mother pushes the other boy’s head into a bowl of pudding, it seems unclear if it is in response to this despicably racist game. The adults are never seen to be aware of what the children are up to. We can gather that Noa’s predicament has some similarities to the situations the adults let themselves get into, i.e., letting others dictate your value. However, the film’s resolution for Noa is having him watch Obama on youtube. While Sewitsky refreshingly confronts the reality that racism and ignorance is alive and well (and as a subplot, at that) in other parts of the world, this resolution is trite and hollow. While the US may have a black president, the US is still rife with racism and bigotry. Noa deserved a better resolution.

However, Happy, Happy is one of the most captivating explorations of married couples that one can hope to see. The devil’s in the details, and Sewitsky manages to pack an amazing amount of subtlety into the 88 minute running time. And one cannot rave enough about the amazing performance of Agnes Kittelsen, whose always present smile and indefatigable will to be happy is both a survival mechanism for her character and the driving force of the film. And when she lets that façade down to break into tears, it’s powerful stuff.

Rating 4 stars

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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