A clash of cultures and values makes for bleak viewing in this impactful film.
Synopsis: A Danish family visits a Dutch family they met on a holiday. What was supposed to be an idyllic weekend slowly starts unraveling as the Danes try to stay polite in the face of unpleasantness.
During my first watch of Speak No Evil, I realised I’d stopped taking notes about halfway through, instead becoming absorbed in the incredible discomfort that the film offers up. This is the kind of horror that you want nothing more than to look away from, yet the compelling treatment of the two opposing views held me in a vice-like grip from start to finish. Speak No Evil functions exactly like the metaphor of a frog in gradually boiling water, seemingly unaware that the temperature is rising to harmful levels. Initially, there is a cringe factor, drawn from their clashing values and while the film hints from the very beginning at something far more sinister, it does excellent (and torturous) work in drawing that out until the very end.
When Bjørn (Morten Burian) and wife Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) meet Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) on holiday, they assume they won’t meet them again, initially writing off offers to visit as nothing more than politeness. However, Patrick and Karin are keen to have them visit and eventually a letter prompts Bjørn and Louise, along with daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) to leave Denmark and go stay with them. As the weekend progresses, so do the clashes between their ways of life, causing issues between all concerned.
Fear of ‘the other’ in horror is nothing new, whether that other comes in human or more overtly monstrous form. Speak No Evil finds its monsters in a domestic space and is all the more horrific for it. Disagreements about food, public displays of affection and raising children are all dialled up to squirm-inducingly uncomfortable levels. Sections of Speak No Evil feel ripped from scaremongering tabloid pages – approaching satirical levels of ‘stranger danger’ that the film pays off in its most distressing scenes. This isn’t to say that director Christian Tafdrup is taking a conservative viewpoint, however – the film feels closer to lampooning those views in its taking events to the extreme than it does comfortably sitting within them.
Boredom and restraint loom like a spectre over the film, with Bjørn viewing their new acquaintances as more exciting than a life he’s fallen into a rut with. His intrigue about them and a clear dissatisfaction with his own life drive him perhaps even more than the politeness that the film otherwise seizes upon. The dry civility with which they live their lives leaves him open to the more expressive, louder inclinations of their hosts. Louise is more under the microscope of the hosts, especially as she is more vocal in her opposition to them. A particularly nervy scene sees Patrick challenge her on her vegetarianism by drawing her on her hypocrisy of eating fish yet refusing meat. We are invited to view the Danish couple as complacent in their middle-class status, paying lip service to environmental concerns but prioritising their own comfort.
Meanwhile, the Dutch couple, despite their initially friendly hospitality is characterised by emotional outbursts. Patrick’s confrontational nature is terrifying, whether it comes in the form of shouting or quieter tearing down. The casting is excellent here, as are the decisions made around the use of language. Some elements are not subtitled, offering a way for both couples to confer without letting the other side in on details. A dramatic score is in place from the very start – it unnerves even when the action feels static and supposedly safe, consistently placing the viewer on edge. This sense that brutality may be around the corner never lifts. In horror, a jump scare or act of violence operates as a release of energy – here that release is denied, culminating in a conclusion that is represented in coldly hollow terms.
Gripping and uncomfortable throughout, Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil may be the meanest film of the year.
4 out of 5 stars
Speak No Evil is now streaming on Shudder.