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Grade B: 'Terribly Happy' wades into classic noir

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

You have to hand it to Friedrich Nietzsche. That guy nailed down the essential theme of film noir back in 1886 when he famously wrote, "And when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

All noir patsies find this out the hard way, and Robert Hansen, the protagonist of this elegant little Danish thriller, is no exception.

Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is a cop who suffered a nervous breakdown back in Copenhagen. His superiors have decided to detail him to South Jutland, a small town in the middle of nowhere. Hansen could use a break — his wife won't speak to him, his daughter thinks he's in Australia. Whatever caused his collapse, it pretty well broke him. He just wants to do his time in the sticks and put his life back together.

But South Jutland shows little interest in letting him heal or even do his job. The residents, who seem comfortable with a little violence in their daily lives, keep telling him he's not acting like the old sheriff (we never do find out what happened to that fellow). It's a strange place, and Hansen barely gets his coat off before a damsel in distress shows up in the person of Ingerlise Buhl (Lene Maria Christensen), a housewife who insists she's being abused by her husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia), a bully in a cowboy hat of whom the whole town seems afraid.

The town bog, which swallows everything from cars to cattle, seems a looming sentinel in the background, a symbol of the town's moral murk.

In keeping with the dull pace of the nowheresville Hansen's in, director Henrik Ruben Genz keeps everything simmering and slow-burning. This is not the kind of noir where the plot becomes too complicated to untangle. It's the kind where one small, almost simple compromise after another leads to a relentless abandoning of principle.

And Genz knows his genre — it could just as easily be Fred MacMurray or Robert Mitchum behind the sheriff's desk when Ingerlise walks into the office, just as she could very well be Ann Savage or Barbara Stanwyck.

There's something immensely appealing about Cedergren. With his haggard, slightly confused look and cop moustache and perpetual five o'clock shadow, his Hansen really does seem to be a guy who wants to do right by his job and himself. But when an accident drags him deeper into the town's underbelly, it's almost a foregone conclusion that he won't escape unscathed.

Watch out for those abysses.

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5926

Rating: Not rated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Theater: Arbor.