Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky’s feature debut, Happy, Happy is a Nordic screwball comedy about marital mayhem, infidelity, closeted homosexuality, slavery and more for adults. Written, shot and produced by women – respectively, screenwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll, cinematographer Anna Myking and producer Synnove Horsdal – Happy is also a Scandinavian equivalent to a chick flick. (Although I guess one could argue that Stieg Larsson’s Swedish trilogy were, too).
Kaja (a fetching Agnes Kittelsen) is a wistful wife in a sexless marriage with Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen). The couple have one son, Theodor (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø), and they live not so happily ever after in a rural part of Norway, where they rent a spare house on adjoining property to an unknown couple: The prettier Elisabeth (Danish actress Maibritt Saerens), Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and their adapted African son Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy).
Kaja is curious about the newcomers, whom she disparagingly compares herself to and places on a proverbial pedestal. But far from being the deal couple Kaja imagines them to be, we soon find out that Elisabeth and Sigve have retreated to the countryside due to problems their own marriage is experiencing. The mixture of the two couples proves to be a combustible combination, and all hell breaks loose.
In the hands of a more somber helmer – say, the Ingmar Bergman of 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage or Francois Truffaut of 1981’s The Woman Next Door – Happy could have devolved into a tragedy. Instead, Sewitsky directs with a deft, droll touch, saving the film from being about endless, dreary Nordic nights filled with contemplation of the sheer meaninglessness of life, existential angst, o woe is me, blah, blah and blah. Sewitsky’s comic panache spares us, and a quartet of upbeat musicians periodically appear from out of nowhere to serenade and amuse viewers with folksy tunes sung in English in the otherwise subtitled film.
As usual, I don’t want to give away what happens as romance unexpectedly blooms and blossoms. Although her husband belittles her, Kaja is the central character, not the more glamorous, upscale, colder Elisabeth, precisely because the somewhat cloddish Kaja is essentially a warm woman, full of yearnings for love. Often, when you see films the behavior of characters seems completely inexplicable. But if you listen closely to the dialogue, when Kaja briefly, offhandedly recounts her personal back story, it all makes sense. Kittelsen’s performance reminded me of Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh’s similarly titled 2008 Happy-Go-Lucky and in 2010’s Made In Dagneham.
The sex scenes alternate between fun and funny (I could almost imagine Lina Wertmuller shooting some of the sequences, with her tongue firmly ensconced in cheek). The exuberance of new love and sexual awakenings are, of course, intoxicating, those rare moments when we feel truly, fully alive. If I have one criticism of this film dealing with sexuality it’s that while there’s full frontal male nudity, the women are, for some strange reason, less revealed. This works against the storyline, as it is largely about Kaja’s self-revelation.
The sexual interplay (and lack of) of the adults is mirrored by the strange role playing of the two sons, which takes on a First World/ Third World twist, as the blonde haired, blue eyed Theodor “enslaves” his Black neighbor. Some viewers may find this subplot to be disturbing, even offensive.
Yet somehow things manage to work themselves out, due to the writer and director’s comic-tragic vision of this journey we call life. Despite the vicissitudes of her relationships, Kaja manages to come into her own as a newly empowered, confident, independent woman. And like Nora before in another Scandinavian work of art, Kaja too leaves her doll’s house.
It’s an affirmation of life that after the dreadful mass murder at Norway this past summer the first Norwegian film to reach our shores is called Happy, Happy – and seeing this movie, which won Sundance’s World Cinema Jury Prize, I did feel, well, you know: Happy.