In 2007, Mads Matthiesen shot an 18-minute short about an introverted, nearly-40-year-old bodybuilder’s struggle with asking a local girl out on a date, and then the fallout resulting from his overly protective, jealous mother’s discovery of his desire for the company of other, younger women. Dennis was a slow-burning and deftly wrought exercise in character dynamics (and it’s still available for free on Youtube as of this review). Using the same actors to portray mother and son, Matthiesen expands on the premise of the earlier short film, and the characters become all the more poignant in this full-length iteration. Teddy Bear maintains its characters’ integrity, creating fairly painful interactions that might frustrate some, but never abuse the trust of the film’s audience.
Kim Kold is a pretty massive dude. Already a well-known Danish bodybuilder, Mr. Kold embodies his role as Dennis fully, incorporating his unavoidable physical grandiosity into his performance in a way that helps to sell the conflicted and bottled-up persona his character requires. Uncomfortably shy, unable to easily converse with women, and 38-years-old, Dennis is in search of someone to share something with. He’s a dedicated bodybuilder, spending an awful lot of time working out, eating some pretty gross slight-warmed-up egg and protein powder concoctions, and working security to make enough money to afford his life of self-denial and physical discipline. Why this modern, secular asceticism is important bears itself out soon enough when we meet his mother Ingrid.
Ingrid (played exceptionally well by Elsebeth Steentoft) is a more or less standard issue version of the overbearing mother. She treats her only son with varying degrees of contempt codependency, unable to trust him owing to an unexplored betrayal by his father. Unable or unwilling to trust her son, she constantly grills him about his whereabouts and activities, always finding something to fault him with. Steentoft’s method of portraying the bitterness of her character is subdued, and hinges upon meaningful looks much more than meaningful dialogue. You can tell from mother and son’s first interaction that a disapproving grimace from her is enough to break whatever kind of resolve he’s trying to muster. Neither are happy, but it becomes apparent that Ingrid much prefers stasis and stability to joy.
Subsequent to attending his uncle’s wedding to a Thai expat, Dennis gets the idea to take a vacation to Pattaya, where his uncle’s assured him it’s much easier to meet nice girls. Matthiesen captures Dennis’ culture shock with poise and an assured camera. Scenes of this giant bodybuilder ambling down busy streets surrounded by a native population that looks almost childlike in comparison to his juggernaut presence. His introversion and reticence is painfully out of place in a city permanently bathed in neon and infused with the smell of uniquely spiced foods that bear no resemblance to the Frikadeller he’s grown up with. While in Thailand, Dennis has time to come to terms with some of the feelings of resentment concerning his mother that he’s been bottling for what we can only assume to be a hell of a long time. Altogether his trip reveals quite a bit about the depth of his compassion, and he naturally meets someone demure and decidedly not neon. The problems this meeting of his bring up back in impossibly grey Denmark are unsurprising in nature, but surprisingly well done in the film.
I suppose the most entertaining and revealing aspects of Teddy Bear lie in its ability to rework and revitalize done-to-death character types, and its trust in those characters’ ability to sustain a feature-length narrative. The movie shares remarkable similarities to documentary at times as we watch these characters stripped of artifice, interfacing in awkwardly naturalistic ways. Kold in particular has done some tremendous work, thoroughly inhabiting an uncomfortably introverted and vulnerable character with grace and vitality.