Generally, I don't like foreign films.
Perhaps it is just my American sensibilities, tastes, and values, but my experience has been that much of what comes out of European cinema is non-sensible, ugly, and nihilistic. And while, I will be the first to admit that my sampling has been rather small, this has been my experience.
I say this because I was surprised at how much I was drawn to the Dutch film Teddy Bear. I saw the trailer and then watched the short film Dennis, to which Teddy Bear is a sequel of sorts. Both showed the wonderfully intriguing figure of Dennis (a stellar Kim Kold), as a lonely, gentle body-builder who lives with his over-bearing mother (Elsebeth Steentoft). The short film is study in loneliness with an ending that is both a bit creepy while being tender. (slightly Not Safe For Work movie below)
In Teddy Bear, we pick up with Dennis' journey to find someone. The film opens with Dennis looking at himself in the mirror during a big date. The film is full of this self-reflection, with fascinating results. Kold and writer/director Mads Matthiesen create a wonderfully subtle visual illusion: they make a giant look small. Dennis is constantly absorbed into the background. He uses his posture to emotionally shrink himself in scene after scene. You never forget the power in Dennis' body, but when you see him shirtless, typing in a dark room in front of a small computer while wearing reading glasses, you get this odd mixture of potency and impotence all at once. Dennis is a majestic stallion who has not been simply broken in, he has been broken.
When his uncle gets a "bride" from Thailand, a desperate Dennis lies to his mother and goes in search of companionship. And there, the massive Dane is a whale out of water, mixed in with all of the other sex tourists from all over the world. One my favorite parts of this film is how disgusted Dennis (and obviously the filmmaker) are at the flesh trade of Thailand. Women sex workers constantly throw themselves at Dennis, but the shy Goliath retreats further into his shell. Sex without love has no place in Dennis' world. And that is all he seems to find there.
The only time Dennis ever is truly himself is when he is body-building. In the gym he makes connections to the people he trains with. And when he poses for the mirror, you see him come alive. It becomes so clear that his muscles are a suit of armor made of his own flesh and sweat to protect his vulnerable heart. He feels so powerless, but here he feels like he has real strength. It was delightful to watch Kold show Dennis come alive before the mirror. And while working out that he meets the owner of the Tai gym Toi (Lamaiporn Hougaard). Unlike all the other women, she talks to him. She connects with him. The film takes a wonderful visual shift. Before this point we spent most of our time in Thailand's seedy night life. But Toi takes Dennis around to see the real beauty that is at the heart of Thailand's culture. You can feel the beauty take over you as it does Dennis.
The heart of the movie is what Dennis will do. Will he find love with Toi? Can he overcome his fears? And if he does, can he confront his over-bearing mother? These are questions I cannot answer in this review, because it would spoil the rest of the story.
But no matter what, you always root for Dennis. He has been beaten down by his mother's emotional blackmail. There are so few things uglier than a mother's love, which should be selfless, turned inward to siphon affection from her children. Steentoft portrays a woman so starved for attention that she has squeezed every last drop of it from her son so that he is actually a prisoner of her love. Dennis is also starved, so he turns to his emotional jailer for any consolation he can.
Mattheson does a fantastic job of telling the story primarily with the visuals. His use of light and color are wonderful. But he would not be able to accomplish this without Kold. Because his performance is not explosive and "showy," it may be overlooked for the accomplishment that it is. A shy body-builder could come off easily as stupid. But instead we see reservoirs of depth and sadness behind his eyes. And every sliver of joy tugs at your heartstrings.
The score is also like the movie: simple and beautiful. It is sparsely presented, but when it appears it does so to great affect. Also like the movie, it is subtle.
But this is also one of the movies flaws. It builds to an emotional climax, but rather than having a cathartic explosion, it lets the emotion slowly bleed out. The other flaw is Hougaard as Toi. As the catalyst for the second half of the story, she needs to be charismatic and have great chemistry with Dennis. But she just was not playing up to Kold and Steentoft's level.
Teddy Bear will leave you touched. If you've ever felt alone, if you've ever yearned for that connection that makes us truly alive and human, then this movie is for you. One of the best foreign films I have seen.
4 out of 5 stars.