Family is the most important thing in the world to Kaja. She is an eternal optimist in spite of living with a man who would rather go hunting with the boys, and who refuses to have sex with her because she “isn’t particularly attractive” anymore. Whatever. That’s life.
But when “the perfect couple” moves in next door, Kaja struggles to keep her emotions in check. Not only do these successful, beautiful, exciting people sing in a choir; they have also adopted a child from Ethiopia! These new neighbors open a new world to Kaja, with consequences for everyone involved. And when Christmas comes around, it becomes evident that nothing will ever be like before even if Kaja tries her very best.
Sykt lykkelig 7.5
eyelights: Agnes Kittelsen. the performances. the many twists and turns. its minor quirks.
eyesores: the children’s racist role-playing.
‘Sykt lykkelig’ is a drama about two married couples who, for all appearances, seem happy – but are privately grappling with their various relationship issues. Desperate for solace, sexual cross-pollination begins to develop between the two sets of neighbours. Can they truly find happiness in the process?
Even though ‘Sykt lykkelig’ was Norway’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards (it didn’t make the shortlist), the only reason I even became aware of the picture is because the DVD artwork stood out on the shelves of my local CD/DVD store every time I went in.
For some reason, this particular version of the release showed a woman lifting her shirt, with each breast covered by a happy face. It looked like a cheesy teen sex comedy, but it had the title “Happy, Happy”, which was discrepant to me. Every time I perused the stores shelves, this stupid image protruded.
I eventually read up on it, and it seemed half-decent – it certainly wasn’t a poor man’s ‘American Pie’. So I did the only thing I could do: I picked it up from my local library – that way I could get a taste of it without committing to a blind purchase and potentially stocking up my shelf with another coaster.
Frankly, I was quite pleased with ‘Sykt lykkelig’. Although the story is nothing especially new, a few elements make it stand out: the setting, the film’s lead actress and its mildly idiosyncratic touches – such as book-ending and separating the film with performances by a 4-piece male a cappella group.
Agnes Kittelsen, who plays our main character, Kaja, was a standout. With her big eyes and wide mouth she was able to give Kaja the allure and fragility of an expressive doll. It is perfectly in keeping with the overly enthusiastic and idealistic shell that she puts up for the outside world, masking the emptiness inside.
The rest of the cast was also quite excellent; even the children were very good, which is saying something. I was especially impressed with the way that they could switch from one emotion to the next seamlessly, as their characters switched from their public personas to their private ones; it never felt abrupt.
I even enjoyed the wintery setting, which can sometimes look dismal, lifeless. Anna Myking’s cinematography was such that many of the landscapes looked like postcards, like pristine moments captured in time – especially the long shots. She managed to beautify that which many of us loathe with a passion.
My only issue with ‘Sykt lykkelig’ is the notion that Kaja and Eirik’s son would start to bully Sigve and Elisabeth’s adopted son because of his African heritage: he begins by making racist comments, but he eventually pressures him into playing slave and master – with the latter as the slave, naturally.
I hated his comments right from the start, but I’d hoped that a parent would put him in line, or that the little boy would stand up for himself. Alas, it only got worse as the film wore on, to the point that Theodor would whip Noa. I don’t know what the point of this subplot was, but I hated having to watch this.
On the one hand, I understood that Theodor’s frustrations at home (he hates his mother and his dad isn’t always gentle with him) were expressing themselves in this oppression, allowing him to feel powerful and in control of his life, but I couldn’t help but worry about the long-term psychological impact on both kids.
Mind you, in this film, no one has it easy: Kaja is constantly being verbally abused by Eirik, Eirik is struggling with his sexual identity, Sigve feels unloved by Elisabeth and is desperately lonely, and Elisabeth has to deal with the breakdown of her marriage, in the form of an affair. It’s no walk in the park.
And yet, ‘Sykt lykkelig’ manages to balance the drama with a lighter, sexy quality. I hate to call it a dramedy, because it doesn’t feel apt at all, but what could have ended up as something heavy comes off as quirky and charming in the end. In fact, even the last few moments, bittersweet as they are, put a smile on my face.
And, although none of the participants end up “insanely happy”, one gets the impression that it all worked out for the best.
Post scriptum: steer clear of the Mongrel Media DVD version of this film. For some reason, the English subtitles switch to what I presume must be Norwegian (the words seemed to match the subtitles) during a crucial revelation. Thankfully, it reverts back to English afterwards, but this is a gross oversight that can only be remedied if one can read the other subtitle track – which is in Spanish.
Date of viewing: June 2, 2014