Speak No Evil, 2022.
Co-written and directed by Christian Tafdrup.
Starring Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fedja van Huêt, Karina Smulders, Liva Forsberg, and Marius Damslev.
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.
Filmmaker Christian Tafdrup (A Horrible Woman) proves himself a master of weaponising cringe for maximum unease in this playful, unpredictable horror-comedy-cum-class satire.
City-dwelling Danish couple Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are holidaying in Tuscany with their young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) when they make casual acquaintance with a similarly vacationing Dutch family, Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), Karin (Karina Smulders), and their son Abel (Marius Damslev).
Some time later, Bjorn and Louise receive an invitation to come stay with their new friends at their Dutch countryside abode, but what begins with mirth and merriment gradually gives way to overpowering discomfort. As Bjorn and Louise start to bristle against their hosts’ increasingly off-kilter behaviour, it becomes clear that something’s gotta give.
Speak No Evil is one of the most infectiously entertaining horror-comedies of recent times, using its sawdust-dry satirical undercurrent to lampoon both the reserved, confrontation-averse mores of the comfortable middle-class, and also the well-trod stylistic conventions of the horror genre itself.
The very opening moments of the film show a car driving down a dark path, set to ominous, bombastic music that wouldn’t sound amiss in an Ari Aster film. And yet, moments later we see that it’s simply Bjorn and Louise driving back to their holiday home, with Tafdrup offering no wider hint of threat.
It’s clear throughout that the filmmaker wishes to pull apart the most overbaked poles of the horror film, and mostly use them to explore emotional rather than physical harm; that is, the existential angst of people who are basically doing quite well in life.
The film is painfully aware that most of us have made passing conversation with fellow tourists on holiday; you make polite chit-chat but probably never see them again once the holiday is over. And even if they insist you come visit them later, how many of us see it as a sincere invitation? Evidently the free-spirited Patrick and Karin’s offer was genuine, and while the directionless, mid-life-crisis-primed Bjorn is thoroughly up for the adventure, his wife Louise seems decidedly less enthused.
Despite the joy of those early hours together in Holland, it’s not long before oddly back-handed compliments and sly passive-aggression abound. However, neither we nor the characters are quite sure if it’s simply a culture clash between the Danes and Dutch – two sets of people so often conflated in the wider world.
It’s toe-curlingly awkward and yet entirely relatable to see these two couples bristling amid their conflicting behaviours and views of the world, smiling through gritted teeth even as resentment and unease begins to build. After all, the only thing scarier than the threat of a serial killer is the gruelling chore of playing-out an unenthusiastic host-guest dynamic until the assigned departure time.
Having the impression of a good time becomes a feat of performance for Bjorn and especially Louise, the latter of whom is deeply perturbed by her hosts’ increasingly loud, boorish ways and overly amorous behaviour. It goes without saying that alcohol does nothing to help the situation, as each “side” digs into the shields of their respective languages to talk shit about the other.
By mining the subtle, even petty means through which discontent can be bred between tribes, Tafdrup’s film feels hilariously true to life in a way many will surely find almost too real. Patrick mocks Agnes for calling herself a vegetarian but still eating fish, and then drunkenly manipulates Bjorn into paying the quartet’s exorbitant dinner tab, which being a guest Bjorn feels obliged to cover without a qualm.
Other aspects of the schism are related to cultural and attitudinal divides, but it’s clear that most of these issues could be solved with a simple conversation. Yet per the film’s title, there’s a pervading fear of how even the most innocuous “complaint” might be construed as rude or combative.
Much of the joy of Speak No Evil is in having no idea quite where it’s going, of following the characters down a rabbit-hole of affected, necrotising grace. Is the entire film trolling both the effete, defanged populous and also horror fans expecting blood ‘n’ guts, or is it building to something more expected for the genre?
I won’t share the answer here, but the story certainly operates at a different pace and rhythm than its logline might immediately suggest. Peak awkwardness is met by the mid-point alone, and while watching the families squirm to please each other against their own comfort, I found myself viewing through the splayed fingers I wouldn’t need for the goriest murder scene.
There certainly comes a turning point where the dynamic shifts and it’s clear that the rehearsed pleasantness of that first act isn’t coming back. Tafdrup hammers the point home by giddily cranking up the horror-show musical score against harmless sights, such as that of the two families going for a walk in a beautiful field.
Humdrum middle-class existence is a spiritual death throughout, the soulful script poring over the psychic pain of being materially comfortable and yet personally unfulfilled.
It’s almost a shame that the story eventually decides to move on from this and lurch towards an ending, because it’s one that’s likely to divide audiences by arguably over-egging the pudding. There are certainly bold decisions made late in the narrative, but not quite the ones all will be hoping for.
Nevertheless, the central acting quartet is outstanding throughout, particularly Sidsel Siem Koch as the wholly believably irritable Louise, ensuring that even in its moments that perhaps don’t fully work there’s tremendous conviction behind what we’re seeing.
Tafdrup’s aesthetics are meanwhile appropriately stately, demonstrating a clear literacy of the horror genre’s stylistic tropes and often recontextualising them in amusing ways.
Less an ultra-violent bloodbath than an exploration of how quiet emotional violence can erode the soul, Speak No Evil melds a gamy indictment of modern living with just a sliver of the more typical fare its premise might suggest.
This unique, tonally adventurous horror-of-manners mines incredible discomfort from its thorny satire of middle-class toothlessness, even if it can’t fully stick the more familiar landing.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.