Directed by Christian Tafdrup [+]
Judging the film from its title, A Horrible Woman [+] sounds like it would be controversial. In the midst of the Weinstein Effect, releasing a film that seemingly describes the women in the relationship as ‘horrible’ would certainly alienate an audience. However, none of that is the case. A Horrible Woman is witty, funny, and a true pleasure to watch. The second feature film from Danish director Christian Tafdrup, A Horrible Woman proves that the director has an exciting future in film and is definitely the one to watch from Denmark.
A Horrible Woman follows the rise and fall of the relationship of Rasmus and Marie. Rasmus is a typical guy, playing soccer with his mates, drinking beer, and wrecking the apartment during a weekend drink session. With a poster of ‘The Dude’ from The Big Lebowski proudly on display in his living room, Rasmus is happy to be the typical guy. However, when he meets Marie, he falls head over heels in love and the two are quick to form a relationship. Given the title of the movie, we know things are going to go south eventually, and the audience waits in anticipation wondering ‘what is the first horrible thing Marie will do?’. But it is not one singular event, like redecorating the apartment, having Rasmus sell his prized CD collection, or inviting over her girlfriends while forcing him out of the apartment, that makes her horrible. In fact, she’s not a horrible woman at all. Her manipulative behaviour only becomes apparent through accumulation, but Rasmus isn’t a victim. While she constantly makes Rasmus feel insecure, he has no idea what he wants and all he does is react to Marie’s actions. His willingness to take a back seat only shows that he has his flaws.
Therein lies the complexity that A Horrible Woman offers. Both parties are guilty of letting this relationship slide, and both characters have their flaws, though of course Marie’s are much clearer and much more serious. A Horrible Woman shows the awkward, mean and petty things that can happen in a relationship thanks to Marie’s controlling, manipulative and passive-aggressive behaviour. As Rasmus starts to realise he is being manipulated, he finds it hard to find the right way to describe what’s happening, and his guy friends dismiss his claims as being “things that happen in a relationship”. Throughout the film, we see Rasmus’ best friend Troels, slowly exhibit signs that he has succumbed to the manipulative girlfriend, which is hilariously clever and shows Marie is not the only ‘horrible woman’ out there. When Rasmus decides to break it off, he realises that at his age all his friends are in long-term relationships, and maybe he needs Marie after all.
The two lead characters are perfectly cast, and the film almost wouldn’t work with any other actor in their shoes. Marie is such a wonderful character, and Amanda Collin really captures her two personalities through her eyes. Breaking the fourth wall twice (see image on the right, which appears in the movie after she wins their first disagreement), both after times she has ‘won’ the argument, it creates a hilarious moment for the audience and they really feel like they are along for the ride. She changes her facial and body expressions so elegantly in these manipulative scenes that what she’s doing is so hard to describe. She appears to two different people, and that only makes her more fearful. Anders Juul is also perfectly cast as Rasmus, the goofy guy who slowly disappears into the relationship. He doesn’t have so much dialogue, but he doesn’t need to say anything as it’s so clear to see what’s going on inside his head.
The genius of A Horrible Woman is just how relatable this film is, to both men and women in both roles of Rasmus and Marie. Mads Tafdrup explained in an audience Q&A at the Nordic Film Days in Lübeck that in the small number of screenings they’d had so far, they found that only a small number of women accused them of being sexist, but a far greater number found identifiable qualities in both characters. In the Lübeck session, only one woman got upset and it was the film appearing cliché, but clichés exist for a reason.
Overall, the Tafdrup brothers have created a contemporary drama of modern relationships, with the insight that relationships today are more about what you can get out of it rather than what you put in. Should couples watch the film together? Probably; it’s a great identifier for potential problems and shows what could happen if they go unnoticed. Don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge this film by its title.