Happy, Happy (Sykt lykkelig)
(2010) Dir. Anne Sewitsky
Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) is married to Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen) and together they have a young son, Theodor (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø), but the marriage is simply coasting with Eirik always out hunting with the lads and refusing to sleep with his “ugly wife”. When a holidaying family moves into the house opposite – Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), her husband Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and their adopted Ethiopian son Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy), their bright and bubbly personalities and apparent perfect relationship brings out a new positive dimension in the maudlin life of Kaja, but not without its surprises or consequences.
This debut for one of Norway’s brightest up and coming directors, Anne Sewitsky, is a acutely observed, character driven film that brings a uniquely Nordic flavour to the world of marital disharmony with some dark humour that may be just a bit too subtle for some audiences. Punctuated throughout with a bluegrass vocal group singing some relevant classics in their own unique style, Happy Happy has its quirks but never veers off into any obscure fantasy worlds to ruin the earnest mood it creates through its believable characters and situations.
Kaja puts brave smile on everything despite her marriage remaining sexless and loveless but the arrival of her new neighbours brings with them flickers of hope for a new lease on life. During a reciprocal dinner hosted by Elisabeth and Sigve, a game of “Know Your Partner” is brought out and while the hosts are on the same page, Eirik’s ignorance towards Kaja is exposed here leaving his wife in tears.
When Sigve offers her some comfort, something happens between them (I’m saying no more) and the affair is off. While Kaja is rejuvenated by the attention she is getting from Sigve, he too is enjoying the buzz from being with some one so attentive and appreciative. As for Eirik, he has a surprise of his own for both Kaja and Sigve that is guaranteed to do more than put the proverbial cat among the pigeons.
There is a potentially contentious subplot involving the two boys that is likely to raise a few eyebrows but it is quite symbolic of the main issue of families paying attention to each other. When Noa first arrives Theodor finds an old history book in which he points out that hundreds of years again, Noa would be his slave. This leads to them playing a film long game of “slave” in which Noa is bossed around by Theodor while it does have the pay off you are desperately calling for, it is not what you think and thus you shouldn’t get too upset by it. Just saying.
On the surface our main characters seem like archetypes but Sewitsky cleverly disarms the viewers by letting their flaws seep through to the surface quite quickly yet without damning them until the time is right for a big reveal. Kaja is an early sympathy figure, being told by Eirik that she is ugly and her body is disgusting (neither is true) which explains why they’ve not made love for a year and that he only married her because she was in love with him. Is she wrong therefore to seek solace in the arms (and loins) of the more appreciative Sigve?
Conversely is Sigve wrong to seek the same from Kaja while his supposedly perfect wife who is moaning and groaning away in the background, bemoaning her apparent stagnant lot in life when she joins the choir Kaja belongs to. Sewitsky is careful not to make this a black and white issue and reminds us that the characters are human, reacting in a human way to a human situation. She doesn’t judge not does she encourage the audience to judge, just observe and wonder.
In her casting Sewitsky has picked a quartet of lead actors that aren’t ugly but aren’t ridiculously and unrealistically glamorous to make a mockery of what is a fairly universal domestic situation. Agnes Kittelsen has the hardest job keeping up the happy exterior even when her heart is broken and her marriage is falling apart, yet she has the perfect face for such a role.
Elisabeth is supposed to be the shining beauty that Kaja allegedly isn’t but Maibritt Saerens manages to make her a very unattractive person despite being one of the aggrieved parties. Henrik Rafaelsen and Joachim Rafaelsen as Sigve and Eirik respectively are not conventional leading men allowing their personalities to define them more than their looks.
Happy Happy is a dark comedy which, even if you don’t get the jokes, you can still enjoy it as a drama. It’s a low key but well made and well acted film, full of charm, wit and with an honesty story at its heart. Anne Sewitsky is definitely a name in World Cinema to keep an eye on.