Tafdrup: Speak No Evil (2022)
Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil is a particularly chilling take on what might be described as the genre of bourgeois insularity – a couple desperate to maintain normality against all the odds. In this case, the couple are Bjorn and Louise, a Danish couple played by Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch, who are holidaying in Tuscany with their daughter Agnes, played by Liva Forsberg, when they meet a Dutch couple, Patrick and Karin, played by Fedja van Huet and Karina Smulders, along with their son, Abel, played by Marius Damslev. The two couples quickly strike up a rapport, albeit the somewhat vacant camaraderie of holidaygoers, until Patrick and Karin invite Bjorn and Louise to spend a couple of weeks with them in the Netherlands. It’s a slightly unusual invitation, and Bjorn and Louise hesitate over whether to accept it, but finally decide that there are enough signifiers of normality here. Two of them stand out in particular: Patrick is a doctor, and the couple have a son. Both of these facts are, apparently, enough to make Patrick and Karin trustworthy, and so Bjorn and Louise accept.
From the outset, then, Speak No Evil, is a satire of reciprocal coupledom – that is, the mutual, oneiric and inane regard of one insular bourgeois couple for another. As the bourgeois couple becomes less prominent in social organisation, this reciprocal recognition becomes more precious for those who are invested in it, and invested in the ways that it delineates “normal” middle-class life from everything that is putatively abnormal. The first act of Speak No Evil is largely driven by this kind of vacuous coupled sociability, but it only lasts so long, as Louise, in particular, starts to get a bad feeling about their hosts: “I just don’t find them that pleasant to be around.” From here, Tafdrup continually restages the uncanny moment when a pair of couples exhaust the etiquette of reciprocal coupledrom – a moment that often coincides with the end of a dinner party, or similar event, but is prolonged here because the Danish couple are staying with the Dutch couple, and so can’t easily retreat to their own domestic comfort.
In particular, Tafdrup targets the privileged role of the bourgeois couple as the regulators of public and private space. Nobody is more likely to experience a seamless transition between their public and private selves, their domestic and social life, as a middle-class couple. By contrast, people outside that mould, who are single, queer, polyamorous, or otherwise othered, are more likely to experience the paradox of closeting – of every personal disclosure feeling at once too private and too public. In Speak No Evil, the Danish couple start to experience this disjunction between public and private life, as the Dutch couple either retreat to an eerily private distance, by speaking exclusively in Dutch, or by being uncomfortably public in their displays of physical affection. Couples who only interact as couples, the film suggests, are likely to experience this paradox: the more they rely on other couples to reiterate their own mediations between public and private lives, the more their own solipsism, and their need to perform coupledom, will fracture that same public-private divide.
Tafdrup thus turns the bourgeois couple oddly awry, makes it atonal, and in doing so forces us to recognise how much this social unit is still the unconscious bedrock of cinema, even now. That off-normality is encapsulated in the fact that English is the main language spoken here, not as a nod in the direction of English audiences, but simply because it’s the only language that the Dutch and Danish couples have in common. Like the bourgeois couple, English is the bedrock of most European cinema aimed at an international market – even subtitled films typically have one or two lapses into English, or display an awareness of a prospective English audience. Just as the bourgeois couple devolves into the eerie connective tissue between the couples here, so English becomes an uncanny middle ground between Dutch and Danish phonetics, until it barely seems to operate as a discrete language anymore.
Like any uncanny text, the strangeness here doesn’t ultimately result from these ruptures to normality, but in the subsequent returns to normality. This, Tafdrup exists, is precisely the function of the bourgeois couple – to insist, over and over again, on a normality that doesn’t exist. In the process, middle-class life itself becomes uncanny, most memorably in the main “reset” of the film, which occurs halfway through. After a particularly unsettling exchange with the Dutch couple, the men and women split off and each pursue a normalising activity. On the one hand, the two women spend some time in the garden, where Katrina bemoans the bluntness of her pruning shears. On the other hand, the men drive out to a local quarry, where they bond over the weight of conventions, and get some catharsis by yelling into the empty space. While the men might be “challenging” convention here, the entire sequence normalises the film itself by shifting it into a quirky Euro cinema mode. For a brief beat, it feels as if this may revert to being a feel-good film about the Dutch couple finding themselves, if only by the sheer weight of their Scandinavian politeness, mildness and courtesy, which at this point has almost changed the shape and tone of the film into something far more benign.
Yet this makes it all the more unsettling when Tafdrup immediately ruptures the two signifiers of normality that qualified the Dutch couple in the first place: the fact that Patrick was a doctor, and the fact they had a child. Early on, they inform the Dutch couple, with all the sensitivity and tact of enlightened parents, that their son Abel, is non-verbal, only for Bjorn to now discover that his tongue has been cut out. Similarly, Patrick casually reveals that he lied about being a doctor. Worse, he’s unemployed, and doesn’t believe in work. All of a sudden, reciprocal coupledrom vanishes, leaving its disavowed other in its place. Initially, this manifests as one of the most taboo, and yet structurally necessary, elements of bourgeois normality: the homoerotic regard of men for each other. From the moment they meet, Patrick and Bjorn share a series of preternatural gazes, sometimes in real life, and sometimes in Bjorn’s dreams, where this imaginary cruising brings tears to his eyes. It’s never explicitly framed as gay – Patrick is more like a Ballardian mentor figure – but it unsettles the coupledom enough from the outset to make it feel the Danish duo are never totally benign.
Sure enough, Bjorn soon discovers that the Danish couple are in the business of harvesting other families – killing the parents, and taking the children, before killing the children in turn, but only when they have moved on to another family. They target these families on holidays, meaning that what appeared as reciprocal coupledom was actually predatory coupledom, the compulsion of the middle-class domestic unit to compete with and absorb the energy of other units in their vicinity. It takes most of the film for this premise to fully emerge and, when it does, it’s all the more horrific for the second act’s lapse into more whimsical and “eccentric” social commentary. The baggy middle third of the film suddenly becomes freighted with horror, while each of the acts corresponds to a different stage in the banality of evil: the awareness of evil, devolution into a quasi-comic bathos, and finally the resumption of evil.
This shift back to horror, and the revelation of the Danish couple’s scheme, is all the more powerful in that no explanation is given. In that sense, Speak No Evil is not unlike The Strangers, which suggests that home invasion is only a perennial fear to the bourgeois couple because it is embedded in the very idea of the bourgeois couple, who define themselves above all against a nebulous and putative outside. At the end of The Strangers, just before they’re killed, the couple in question ask “Why are you doing this to us?” and get a simple answer: “Because you were home.” When the Danish couple ask “Why did you do this,” they receive a similar answer from the Dutch couple: “Because you let us.” Rather than requiring an individual or “psychological” motivation, the Dutch couple’s violence is inherent to the institution of bourgeois coupledom itself, which works, the movie suggests, by relegating people to an abject otherness and absorbing their energy in the process. By the late stage of coupledom we see in Speak No Evil, this compulsion to “other” extends even to other couples, so precarious has the outside become that the middle-class could once define itself against.
This results in the final set piece of the film, which returns us to normality only by way of extreme horror. In doing so, it absorbs the two main ways the Dutch couple restored normality earlier in the film – the women gardening, the men driving to the quarry. The shears that were too blunt to tend to the garden are now used to cut out Agnes’ tongue, before the Danish couple are driven to the quarry by the Dutch couple, who strip them naked and proceed to stone them to death. In recent years, the institution of torture, and the spectacle of stoning, has been used to encapsulate everything alien about radical Islam, especially in European cinema. Here, Tafdrup turns that otherness back on the bourgeois couple, who become a repository of arcane ritual precisely because they take the reproductive futurity of middle-class life to its extreme. Not content to be hampered by biology, or by the female clock, when it comes to having babies, they prey on other families, steal their children, and then kill them, in a kind of lurid generative fantasy, a vision of endless, insatiable childbirth.
Speak No Evil thus finds the bourgeois couple at a moment of crisis that necessitates the most brutal, arcane and ritualistic gestures of reproduction. These quickly eclipse any pretense to parenthood, sociability and society, leaving no point of reference other than themselves, much as the third act jettisons us into the solipsistic flatness of the Dutch landscape. One of Tafdrup’s main strategies to build tension throughout the film is to remove virtually all supporting characters, leaving the couples with nothing to fall back upon for succour except reciprocal coupledom. Now even the infrastructure of bourgeois life fall away too, leaving us in a series of looming voids that are punctuated only by elusive patches of fog, along with distant and distorted sources of light, making it impossible to orient ourselves spatially. Bourgeois coupledom is distilled into a fetish for distance above all else – distance from the public, distance from other couples, and distance from the world – but without another couple to witness and ratify this distance, the Danish duo are left in an ideological vacuum. Space now feels almost virtual, like a bourgeois projection or fantasy that has gone awry, leaving the Danish couple with no autonomy, as they blindly follow the orders they’re given.
That makes it doubly disorienting when the epilogue returns to the resort where the Dutch couple initially met, and preyed upon, the Danish couple, this time with their new child in tow. All the bourgeois sightlines of the opening scene are restored, but with an eerie sense of the virtual vacuity beneath them, as Patrick again sets his eye on other men, and waits for the shared gaze, the moment of almost unconscious recognition, the acknowledgment of reciprocal coupledom, that will permit him and Katrina to set up the process again. And there’s a whole world of horror in that gaze, the nexus between the events we’ve just seen and the events to come, which smoulder, inchoate, beneath the serenity of Tafdrup’s images.
Leave a Reply