The line between comedy and horror has rarely seemed so thin than in Christian Tafdrup’s excruciating and admirably mean-spirited Speak No Evil. Cannily exploiting the knuckle-chewing tension of intense social awkwardness when two opposed families collide, long stretches of Tafdrup’s third feature could easily be a particularly intense piece of culture clash comedy. Apart from the tell-tale title and the boomingly ominous music that clues us in right from the off of course. In fact, it’s the plausibility of the scenario that is most disturbing aspect. How many times have we wanted to flee an uncomfortable situation, but have stayed out of a sense of propriety?
When Danish family Bjørn (Morten Burian), Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) meet some incredibly friendly Dutch counterparts on holiday in Tuscany, they hit it off right away. They’re therefore delighted to later receive an invitation to the remote forest home of Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders), and their withdrawn son Abel (Marius Damslev). But it isn’t long before the behaviour of their hosts starts to cause concern. Nothing major at first, and certainly nothing that couldn’t be put down to slight cultural differences or just plain miscommunication. But as the antics of Patrick and Karin escalate in their bizarreness, the visitors’ sense of self-preservation begins to override their politeness. But by that point it may be too late.
Tafdrup has pointed to the likes of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier as inspiration for Speak No Evil, his first foray into horror. It shows. The film mines the same blackly cruel tone as Haneke’s Funny Games, and is likely to attract similar criticisms as that most nihilistic of shockers. Even those moments where the Danish family’s plight could be seen as humorous, there’s a queasy, unpleasant residue that sticks like molasses, as in the most uncomfortable moments in The Idiots. Tafdrup plays off all-too recognisable concerns: a desire not to offend, masculine insecurity, feminine concern about being seen as shrewish or hectoring, worry about being considered prudish – I mean, they are Dutch after all.
Speak No Evil‘s most astringent element is that Bjørn and Louise are, for the most part, in a trap of their own making. They allow themselves to get further into danger purely by their own reluctance to puncture the bubble of politeness. And it’s the boiled-frog nature of their predicament that hems them in. Even when they do push back with their concerns, they’re explained away in ways that make them appear peevish and ungrateful. And so they stay. Burian and Koch play this beautifully and aren’t always the most sympathetic protagonists. There’s something milquetoast and ineffectual about Bjørn that somebody like Patrick could also dominate, even without intentional malice. Koch mines a brittleness that manifests in a passive-aggression she struggles to rein in, even before things get weird. Smulders is more of an enigma as Karin. There’s perhaps a voyeuristic edge, an emotionally vampiric pleasure she gains from the discomfort inflicted by her boorish husband. Van Huêt’s Patrick is certainly discomfiting. Although, there is some evident mania at work, a kind of infernal Tim Curry-esque vulpine energy that should have had red flags waving even in sunny Tuscany.
The film’s 98 minutes feel unnaturally elongated, yanked to tearing point like a screaming tendon. Tafdrup is hugely adept at editing each scene for maximum impact. Even the most innocuous moment feels aggressively sinister, and the more patient he is, the more sadistic it all feels. It’s a systematic, controlled savagery and it will prove to be too much for many, not least in some of the targets of that ferocity, another echo of Funny Games. But for those who happily wallow in dread and unease like a comforting soak in a hot bath, this will hit that very particular spot. It’s already been snapped up for streaming by Shudder later in the year. A remake is also extremely likely; perhaps a British one given that Tafdrup’s methods feel closely aligned to our tastes in comedy and, of course, horror.
Screening as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022