By Thomas M. Puhr.
More akin to an ancient tragedy – one that looks unflinchingly at the terrible depths to which all-too-human people can sink.”
Horrible things happen in Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil (2022), but it is not really a horror film. Like Salò (1975) or Martyrs (2008), it is more akin to an ancient tragedy – one that looks unflinchingly at the terrible depths to which all-too-human people can sink. Though the film provides much to admire on an aesthetic level (its performances are painfully realistic, its tableau-like visuals often quite arresting), most viewers will finish it and feel only a deep sadness. Tafdrup offers no solace, catharsis, or relief. The very question of whether or not Speak No Evil can be “recommended” is absurd.
The story opens with married couple Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) vacationing in Italy with their adolescent daughter, Agnes (Liva Forsberg). At a resort, they meet and befriend another Dutch family: Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), Karin (Karina Smulders), and their young son, Abel (Marius Damslev). Tentative plans to meet again are established, and the families go their separate ways. A few months later, Bjørn and Louise get a letter in the mail from their old friends: Would they like to spend the weekend at Patrick and Karin’s place? Sure, the two families don’t really know each other, but they had a nice enough time together on holiday. And wouldn’t it be kind of rude to refuse the offer outright?
Christian and cowriter Mads Tafdrup neatly sidestep expectations once the families reunite. Rather than painting the hosts as unrepentantly evil, the Tafdrups keep their cards close to the vest, instead opting for a series of increasingly cringe-inducing social interactions. Why, for example, does Patrick only cook meat dishes, knowing (or probably knowing; didn’t she mention it?) that Louise is a vegetarian? What’s with Karin ordering Agnes to complete little tasks, like setting the dining room table? And then there’s Abel, who – due to some vague illness – cannot speak and moans in pain throughout the night.
These early scenes are quite effective, even brilliant, as they establish that something is not quite right with Patrick and Karin without relying on over-the-top theatrics. The four central adult performances are uniformly impressive: Huêt and Smulders delicately walk a razor’s edge between being welcoming and uncomfortably domineering, while Burian and Koch react with a combination of unease, bafflement, and slowly intensifying fear. Viewers may find the visiting couple’s failure to get the hell out of there unrealistic; one scene in which Bjørn and Louise literally turn their car around and return to that godforsaken house will elicit some incredulous groans. But anyone who has found themselves staying a bit too long at an awkward dinner party so as not to seem rude will understand: Plenty of people will overlook all sorts of red flags in order to avoid confrontation, or even mild awkwardness. The Tafdrups are clearly trying to say something about people who allow themselves (and their loved ones) to sleepwalk directly into the jaws of evil.
Once certain motives come to light, though, Speak No Evil becomes something entirely different. I imagine Tafdrup will lose many, many viewers when he breaks what is commonly considered a cardinal rule of genre filmmaking: Leave the kids alone. It’s safe to say that Gene Siskel would have had some serious reservations about what the children in this particular narrative are put through. The difference between “unflinching” and “gratuitous” loses a lot of its ambiguity when young characters (and, by extension, young actors) enter the equation.
Granted, art need not always make us feel excited, pleased, or even “happy” to have experienced it. Let me be clear: Speak No Evil falters not because of what it is (those familiar with the Book of Job know there’s no shortage of biblical stories with despairing narratives about the nature of evil) but because of how it is what it is. Tafdrup seems to wanthis audience to believe they’re watching a genre outing, or even a pitch-black comedy of manners – especially during the first hour or so – and this is where I take issue with what is at times an impeccably made film. Implicit in its soundtrack of screeching violins and jump cuts to creepy characters lurking behind dark windows is a fundamental deceptiveness. What we have is not a case of a streaming service mismarketing a movie – Shudder picked this one up – but of a movie mismarketing itself.
Such tactics may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but there’s no denying the Tafdrups have a vision. Those who endure Speak No Evil’s grueling 97 minutes will likely be thinking about it for a long time. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your threshold for pain.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.