Another film that’s hard to like but easy to admire, Speak No Evil comes hot on the heels of a recent example of the same – Soft & Quiet – which I watched last week. Both set up and stoke a tension that becomes so janglingly unpleasant that, for this home viewer, pausing, getting out of the chair and walking around a bit became a necessity. I suspect the way to really watch this film is in a cinema, where there is more pressure to stay in your seat and not out yourself as such an obvious wuss.
Again like Soft & Quiet, Speak No Evil starts out in the sunlit uplands of genteel human interaction, in Italy, at one of those agroturismo holidays where middle-class folk assemble to make hand-cut pasta and organic mozzarella, consume rustic meals with good wine and maybe make a new friend or two.
That’s where Danish couple Björn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) meet Netherlands duo Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders). Each couple has a child and Björn and Louise’s daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) winds up spending quite a bit of time with Patrick and Karin’s rather sombre and shy son, Abel (Marius Damslev).
The idea for Christian Tafdrup’s film (he co-wrote with brother Mads) sprang from just such a holiday encounter. After the holiday was over, Christian’s family got an invitation to go visit their new holiday acquaintances. They never took it up, but the invitation planted a seed. What if he had? What’s the worst that could have happened?
Here the grimly gruesome fruit of that seed, 97 minutes of what happens to Björn, Louise and Agnes after they fetch up in the Netherlands for a weekend which starts out as fun, morphs into a series of niggly but forgivable social faux pas (their guests had forgotten that Louise is a vegetarian and have cooked a roast boar, for example) but ends up somewhere way beyond the “weekend from hell” and which explains the title eloquently and with a dark ironic chuckle.
This is not a movie for the faint-hearted, though it all starts so mildly. At first Björn and lovely Louise take Patrick and Karin’s series of mild infractions in their stride. Why kick up a fuss when we’re only here for a few days. The Tafsdrups are definitely interested in the point when good manners yield to something more primal, The Hills Have Eyes… in a social-democratic wrapper.
Hitchcock-style, Christian Tafdrup has given the audience prior knowledge as to where this is all heading. A funny look from the slightly over-eager Patrick early on reinforces the most obvious steer – Sune Kløster’s score, which starts the film with a fanfare of almost Wagnerian intensity as a car innocently drives down a country road at night. Later, as the two families enjoy a walk across a sunlit field towards a picturesque windmill, Kløster does it again. Something almost heroically sinister this way comes.
What a great cast and technical crew this is – everything just works, everything slots together seamlessly, with performances that simmer on the edge of hysteria, and cinematography, editing and sound design that push the viewer claustrophobically close to the action, as if we were inside someone’s personal space, only to then pull back in a mockery of reassurance.
Again like Soft & Quiet, it actually comes as something of a relief when Speak No Evil reveals itself as a horror film and a recognisable horror trope or two starts to appear. Familiarity and reassurance in screaming and bloodletting – discuss. At last, suddenly, finally, we at least know where we are.
It becomes grim and gruesome only to become even more grim and gruesome for its awful finale. “Why are you doing this?” asks Björn, imploringly, right before things go insanely banzai. “Because you let me,” replies Patrick. Never mind speak no evil – be less fucking polite!
Speak No Evil – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022