Like an unholy amalgamation of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and the most squirm-inducing cringe comedy one could possibly imagine, Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil expertly navigates the very fine line between passive-aggressive social niceties and outright horror, pushing uncomfortable glances and awkward miscommunications to their breaking point. The film begins innocuously enough; Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), her husband Bjorn (Morten Burian), and their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) are vacationing in Italy. A chance encounter brings them to the attention of Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), his wife Karin (Karina Smulders), and son Abel (Marius Damslev), a family staying at the same resort and who are as gregarious and outgoing as Louise and Bjorn are reserved. Still, they get along well enough, and Bjorn in particular seems fascinated by Patrick’s almost boorish charisma. Curiously enough, Tafdrup scores these low-key, even banal early scenes with an ominous, droning soundtrack, low hums building to loud clanging. It’s our first (very obvious) clue that something isn’t quite right here, a creeping unease that underscores and seeps into these otherwise picturesque moments.
Some time later, after returning to their home in Denmark, Louise is surprised to receive a postcard from the other couple. She and Bjorn have been cordially invited to spend a weekend with Patrick and Karin at their home in Holland. Louise is reticent — after all, they don’t know these people very well — but Bjorn is excited at the prospect of seeing them again. And both are concerned about being perceived as rude by declining the invitation. They make the trip, and upon their arrival strange occurrences begin immediately. Patrick and Karin are almost aggressively eager, their energy manifesting as a kind of smothering politeness. But Patrick is also loud, drinks too much, and constantly snaps at young Abel. They forget that Louise is a vegetarian and serve only meat at meals. When the adults go out to a restaurant, it’s a rundown roadhouse and Patrick sticks Bjorn with the tab. It’s a grueling bit of narrative misdirection, vacillating between horror and pitch black comedy as Patrick and Karin constantly butt up against Louise and Bjorn’s stubborn desire to be gracious guests. Something has to give, and eventually the Danish family leaves, fed up. But fate conspires against them, and soon enough they return to Patrick and Karin’s home. The couple apologize profusely, insisting that any misunderstandings are attributable to the difference between their cultures, and anyway won’t they stay one more day. They really want to make it up to their guests.
In his own way, Tafdrup turns the screws on his hapless family even more insidiously than Haneke. There’s no schoolmarmish hectoring of the audience, and while it seems that Tafdrup is invoking Scream here — giving the characters (and by extension, the audience) clear indications that they should turn-around, go home — there’s no third-wall breaking to situate the film comfortably within postmodern irony. Instead, it’s a bit of cleverness that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, content to toy with the audience’s expectations. Incidents continue to pile up as scenes stretch to almost unbearable lengths, constantly building from moment to moment to unfathomable levels of cringe before finally having a character back down and apologize, allowing the cycle to continue. Maybe it is all just a misunderstanding, after all. Eventually, Bjorn stumbles across the truth, and the film switches gears into something entirely more sinister. To reveal more would be a disservice to audiences; suffice to say that Speak No Evil earns its place in Sundance’s hallowed Midnight section. It’s a grueling experience in the best sense possible, with a pitch-perfect ending that giddily revels in its own mean-spiritedness.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 1.