This film may initially strike us as little more than a compost of noir elements, yet we will be proven wrong. It begins with a cow legend, a half-beast, half-child tale of parturition with elements that once might have suggested a demonic presence and are now only translated by computerized minds as a provincial kind of sexism. Some cleansing acts are carried out and then we are assured: "Since that time there has been no trouble with cows or women." After this odd introduction we are subsequently informed that the story is based on true events. If this is so, gentle reader, let me be the first to cancel any future trips to southern Denmark. True enough, I don't really mean that last part (Denmark has always been for me a heaven on our brittle earth), so maybe I can simply eliminate a few select swampy patches on the Jutland map.
Our protagonist is Robert (Jakob Cedergren), a handsome, lonesome, still youngish Copenhagen cop with a broad suggestible streak. Suggestibility implies a certain absence of self-confidence, common enough in someone attractive (perhaps his appearance has long since masked his foolishness; perhaps he has pursued his sensual privileges and neglected his mind). Nevertheless, we tend to think that his looks emerged well after adolescence, which explains why he has never really exited that period. In keeping with noir prototypes, Robert is introduced to us with a checkered past that no one, he least of all, wishes to talk about. His infraction will be clarified to some extent much later in the film, but his penance will be as a small-town bailiff. "Nothing really happens here," says his superior as he drives Robert to his temporary new home, "and if something does happen, you just report it to me." Robert gives that nervous nod endemic among people who tend to talk themselves into trouble and lets the comment sit. Importantly, the village in question also lies next to a hateful bog – a pit of sin in more than one sense – although one wonders whether any bog has ever enjoyed a glittering reputation.
Ah yes, southern Denmark. As a long-time speaker of what may be termed rigsdansk (standard Danish), I am still astounded by the panoply of dialects in such a snug little place. Robert's shibboleth is the squeaky greeting "morning" (møjn), a noise which at one point even the cat seems to produce. And certainly, a conspiracy of noir circumstances seems to be afoot: suspicious locals on every corner stare at Robert as if he were a pink elephant; his bike is almost run over more than once by a determined truck; the stillness of the always-deserted streets screams western with, in good western tradition, Robert as both lawmaker and outlaw; and, of course, the appearance of the requisite femme fatale Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen). Ingerlise is walking and talking bad news; she is also, by Danish standards, not particularly fetching. Yet she is alluring in that way that some women have of being able to be completely enthralled by what a man is saying. Ingerlise seems to confirm our fears of genre compliance with a litany of femme fatale characteristics: the implication that she is undersexed; the further implication that she is misunderstood, if not reviled by the community (Ingerlise is from Åbenrå, and thus also an outsider) for her sensuality or other careless lusts; and the very direct declaration that her bloated boar of a husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) batters her whenever he thinks she deserves it. Scars suggest this might be a weekly event. Just when Robert, who is very intrigued despite his better judgment, asks for more information about a certain bicycle dealer who disappeared a few years back, Ingerlise overtly pauses then lets her bike tumble to the ground for Robert to retrieve (in romances past, this may have been a glove or handkerchief). We now know for certain that Robert will eventually possess Ingerlise, that the boar will eventually learn of their little escapade one way or another, and that all this could have been rather easily avoided if Robert weren't so predisposed to cutting corners.
Which brings us to another dirty little secret. It is no spoiler to reveal that Robert has a wife in Copenhagen, as well as a beloved daughter whom he hasn't seen in months. "And why haven't you," asks a perfectly logical Ingerlise, who also has a daughter in the eight-to-ten-year range. That would be because Robert's daughter believes her father to be in Australia, "the farthest possible country," and also very much a symbolic southernmost purgatory. As our film skids down some curious slopes, we cannot but notice Robert compensating for his own estranged family by seeking to aid another wife and child in need of a good father (one could even imagine Ingerlise's daughter's ubiquitous red jacket making Jørgen into more of a wolf than a boar). Jørgen, a natural-born bully, senses the fear and vulnerability in the newcomer and pushes him to the usual lengths of oneupmanship until one incredibly unfortunate (and improbable) night almost leads the men to join forces. Ingerlise finds every public meeting place possible to carry on their intensifying flirtation, and tongues wag because this is some of the juiciest scandal in, well, perhaps weeks now. The details and double-talk propel the players to the middle of the film and the turning point in everyone's existence. I can't remember the last time I ever saw anyone withdraw ignition keys from a moving car, but the thoughtful viewer might wish to consider the vehicle and its driver with similar empathy.
There is also a quack of a doctor who "barked up Ingerlise's tree" a while back, a store owner who has a special storage area for his long-fingered clients, and a priest who can be identified only by his frilly collar. In a town this small, however, the intervention of any one of the characters cannot be considered anything less than formulary. Terribly Happy plays as the best type of western, that is, the kind that forsakes the silly invincibility of isolation that informs most films of that genre for the ravenous despair of noir. And while the twanging nonsense of its soundtrack jangles the nerves and earns it a half to three-quarters demerit, the tone is correct: Robert has been shipped to a zone of amoral actions and players. It will become his task to determine whether these persons are immoral, which involves consistency, or whether they do actually propone an ad hoc understanding of human motives and words. If they are structurally evil, they can be judged and, in principle, reformed; on the other hand, should they be merely anarchic hoodlums ready for a scrap to the death at any given moment, then there is little Robert or anyone else can do for them. The worst part about this type of noir is not that you cannot know the truth, but that no one wishes you to know it; you are not an initiate into the global conspiracy, and this little village might as well be its own planet orbiting our greater realm. Even if its main inhabitant and actor might be a large pool of slime.