Happy, Happy Dir. Anne Sewitsky

[Magnolia Pictures; 2011]

Styles: Norwegian romantic comedy
Others: American romantic comedies

Happy, Happy is about an optimistic woman (insanely or sickly so, the Norwegian title would suggest), her homosexual husband, and the cosmopolitan couple who move in next door. I don’t mind spoiling the plot, given this film is concerned mainly with a representation of love and the nuclear family in contemporary bourgeois (anti-)society. Whatever unique elements it has are less important than the formal features of its genre. So: Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen), the warm one, gives Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen), the conducive one, a blowie in the bedroom after he comforts her as she cries about the sexless nature of her relationship with Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen), a cold one, at least with women. This sucks more figuratively, because Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), the other cold one, at least with the provincial and pathetic, has moved out to the sticks in order to demonstrate to Sigve that she’s finished with whatever tryst had siphoned her passion.

I’ve overexposed you to temperature not to set up a bad joke about the film’s country of origin, but in order to lead through the manifest action (which in the case of Happy, Happy, as with all romantic comedies, ultimately fulfills the emotional promises of a restorative three-act structure) and toward a realization of the dialectical structure the film is already half-conscious of.

The first opposition I want to point out is work/love. Happy, Happy gives only a single representation of professional occupation: the word “lawyer,” spoken by Elisabeth. But even that designation turns out to have greater currency as an assessment of sexuality. Absent any attempt at transduction, the adult characters’ labors are implicated exclusively in an economy of feelings, and the resulting surplus drives the final redemptive break and reconciliation. The happy, happy conclusion makes it too easy to ignore the film’s underdeveloped subtleties and takes up the appearance that the only values relevant to the determination of conjugal relationships lie on a spectrum between hot and cold.

The opposition the film recognizes is “modernity”/”things we care about,” whereby modernity the film intends postmodernity (here in the guise of globalization), and where the things we care about is an invalid generalization from the thing the characters care about, which is family. This isn’t a false opposition because it’s assumed and understood that family can only mean nuclear family (or quasi-nuclear… electronic?). Here, as in the case of hot/cold, the characters “get it right” through control of their oscillations. Little concessions have to be made in order to preserve the monolith. Kaya has to break up with Eirik in order to liberate her desire, but he’s relocated into the newly vacated house next door in order to keep the together-happily-ever-after intact. I can summarize this part of my critique in one sentence: Dan Savage would love this film.

This is the time to mention a formal quirk. There are five or six interludes in which an extremely white (probably Norwegian) barbershop quartet sing the blues and Black American spirituals. So, on the one hand, we get an embedded demonstration that historical acceleration and the speed of contemporary systems make space meaningless (thanks, Paul Virilio). On the other hand, it’s an open question whether the film recognizes the significance of place. Sigve and Elisabeth’s son, Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy), is engaged by Kaya and Eirik’s son, Theodor (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø), in a game of master-and-slave (cf. Hegel’s “Independent and Dependent Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage” in The Phenomology of Spirit). The parents’ energies are fully deployed in amorous or counter-amorous exchanges, so they give no indication they’re aware of their sons’ play (except once, when Elisabeth [her exception again…] shoves Theodor’s face down into his bowl of cottage cheese). And this is where the film fails its potential. It depicts love as apolitical by privileging the pure potentiality of the sexual encounter (Kaya’s “I feel like I can do anything”), an excess that finally produces a homeostatic and thereby self-sufficient familial pseudo- or micro-society.

What might have developed instead is a complication of the opposition black/white, which gets played out only between the children and comes to stand, problematically, for multiple categories of oppression. With questionable judgment, the director (Anne Sewitsky) and writer (Ragnhild Tronvoll) (both white, I may as well point out) determined that Noa should be mute. His passivity becomes increasingly disturbing as Theodor works out his daddy-related frustrations through mock sadism. This opportunity for an imagination of the intersectionality between racial and sexual oppression never gets fertilized, however, because as I mentioned above, the conclusion of the film is redemptive. It legitimizes the labors of the adults, which are relatively unproductive socially, and trivializes the labors of the children, which are relatively more useful for creating a space of contact. Noa’s game is erased even as it’s repaired when he watches a video of Barack Obama speaking about modernity and the things we care about (“not only for Noa and black people, but for all people,” I imagine Sewitsky and Tronvoll saying).

I may as well go all the way in making my point that Happy, Happy, while enjoyable enough to watch, only mentions some of the most glaring contradictions of neoliberalism in order to reaffirm that very ideology.

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