REVIEW: Speak No Evil (2022)

Christian Tafdrup’s SPEAK NO EVIL is much more than just an unsettling culture clash – PHOTO: Nordisk Film.

Directed by Christian Tafdrup – Screenplay by Christian Tafdrup & Mads Tafdrup.

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, critics and festivalgoers alike were introduced to one of Denmark’s latest filmmaking provocateurs, Christian Tafdrup. The actor-turned-director got his career as a filmmaker started with his first two feature-length efforts Forældre (int. title: Parents) and En Frygtelig Kvinde (int. title: A Terrible Woman), the latter of which starred Amanda Collin (who you may have seen in HBO Max’s Raised by Wolves) and was a relative hit that provoked some audience-members. Speak No Evil — Tafdrup’s latest feature film — was received fairly well at the festival, and is, reportedly, one of the best films that actor Robert Pattinson has seen in many years. I won’t go that far, but I will say that I think this very unsettling Danish thriller is Tafdrup’s best film yet.

Christian Tafdrup’s third feature film, Speak No Evil, follows Bjørn (played by Morten Burian) and Louise (played by Sidsel Siem Koch), a modern Danish couple who have a young daughter (played by Liva Forsberg), as they are on vacation in Italy. While in Southern Europe, they take in the beautiful aesthetics and meet other couples from around the world. One of these couples is the Dutch family consisting of parents Patrick (played by Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (played by Karina Smulders) and their young son Abel (played by Marius Damslev), who does not speak.

The Danish and Dutch couples hit it off in Italy and they come to the conclusion that they, and their cultures, resemble or complement each other quite well. Bjørn especially needed the boost of vacation and meeting new people, so when he finds an invitation to the Netherlands back in their mailbox in Denmark, he becomes adamant that they absolutely should visit. However, once they do, they quickly start to realize that the Dutch couple isn’t everything they made themselves appear to be back in Italy. Culture clashes become more overt and eventually turn quite hostile, but, as things start to unravel, our Danish couple realizes how difficult it is to actually just say ‘no’ and confront what is actually happening.

Speak No Evil is deeply unsettling and contains a couple of images that may scar certain moviegoers (parents may need a trigger warning). Though it is billed as an out-and-out horror film, I would advise moviegoers to approach it differently. While it certainly contains horror elements and can definitely be described as one, I think those who are going to see the film and are expecting a classic horror picture will be underwhelmed by how relationship-focused and patient it is. I think of it more as a deeply disturbing thriller about conflict avoidance, among other things. It is absolutely true that it structurally and premise-wise isn’t particularly unpredictable, but Tafdrup inserts an ever-present feeling of dread lying just under the surface that I think is really effective. Tafdrup certainly succeeds in making you feel unsettled, uncomfortable, and sometimes beaten into submission.

Since arriving on the scene with his quiet but surprisingly quite strange Parents, through the somewhat controversial A Terrible Woman, and now with Speak No Evil, Christian Tafdrup has made it very clear that he is particularly interested in relationships and modern gender roles. His second feature divided audiences because of how he portrayed the modern woman, and, in my reading of Speak No Evil, which has a lot on its mind, Tafdrup appears to have his focus set on the modern Scandinavian man. Specifically, how his impotence, his modern sensibilities, and his hopeless search for some lost ancient feeling of manliness and heroism makes him an easy prey. Morten Burian plays this modern everyman to perfection. He cries at a concert in Italy, looks wistfully out the window for something more, and you can tell how charmed he is by even the slightest hint of acknowledgment from a so-called alpha male.

As a couple, both Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch feel genuine, and they both do a good job of communicating how difficult it is to leave the pleasantries at the door even when a wolf is huffing and puffing. There are several oddities here that can easily be written off as faux pas or harmless culture shocks, but it’s also clearly uncomfortable for them to speak up and engage in any conflict, which feels very relatable, even if there are times when you want to scream at the screen for them to do this, that, or the other. I also thought the Dutch couple was quite good.

One of the other elements of the film that help to create this general sense of dread is the quite overwhelming musical score which blasts you with a wave of discomfort sometimes in strange moments (e.g. back in Denmark as they watch their daughter up on stage with her classmates or later when we see a windmill). It’s quite effective, I thought. I also think that Tafdrup in certain moments almost pits the modern couple, which is at times overly concerned with manners, against the wilderness and something quite barbaric, almost as if to criticize modernity. It’s a film with a lot to say, and I don’t think all of it is as intelligible as it maybe should be. However, I think most of it works.

With his third feature as a director – Speak No Evil – I think that Christian Tafdrup has successfully made his best film yet. It is a disturbing and thought-provoking thriller with a lot on its mind, such as manners, conflict avoidance, and the impotence of the modern man. I wouldn’t call it unique but it really works, and it’s clear that, in flirting with both horror and social satire here, he is inspired by filmmakers like Michael Haneke, Lars Von Trier, and Ruben Östlund (though it also, at times, reminded me of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals). Time will tell if the Danish actor-turned-filmmaker will ultimately become as influential as those European filmmakers, but, in any case, this is a strong next step for Christian Tafdrup.

8.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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