While apparently every other site out there is celebrating Valentine’s Day by releasing lists of top movies/moments/kisses/break-ups/you-name-it, I thought I’d focus on a recent title that’s been way too underseen… and yet has been enjoyed by every single person I know who's ever seen it. Mads Matthiesen’s Teddy Bear, released this week on home video by Film Movement, is a film I first saw almost a year ago, and it made a vivid impression on me then. The reason I feel it’s a classic, though, is that upon revisiting it and reflecting upon it, even more of its virtues are revealed—and for me, that’s practically the definition of a classic.
All right, so here are my reasons, specifically:
- It’s understated but never boring. Romances are often loud, self-important, hyperbolic affairs—and that turns a lot of people off the genre. And many other romances are moody, morose tales full of torment—which can also be a sign of navel-gazing self-importance. Teddy Bear is neither: it situates romance within the business of authentically being human, no more, no less.
- The approach is fairytale-ish and yet consistently real. Can the man-boy escape the clutches of his smothering mom, and stand on his own two feet—not to mention his extremely sturdy legs? The script’s set-up may be archetypal in some ways, but the film’s evocation of well-observed real-life details allows you to enjoy the allegorical aspects without regrets because the main character, Dennis, is just so darn dimensional and believable.
- Teddy Bear acknowledges cynicism and loneliness, and then moves beyond them. Does a Westerner traveling to Thailand for the sole reason of finding a bride sound a little sleazy? Even if we like the character who’s doing it? Yeah, I thought so. But it also speaks to the reality out there, of people afraid to grow old alone and entire industries that seek to assuage that fear. Teddy Bear doesn’t so much judge all this as say that it’s an okay starting point… because we're capable of so much more.
- The story is a global one. I’m an American caught up in a tale about Danes and Thais. If love is indeed universal, this film is Exhibit A.
- The movie has broad, but smart, across-the-board appeal. By that I mean that lead Kim Kold, a massive pro bodybuilder, is clearly “a manly man”—the kind that lots of men won’t recoil from as being too "weak" and sensitive. And yet he is sensitive. What’s more, his love interest is sweet… but she’s also a sharp, independent woman, not some damsel waiting to be saved from life by her lover’s muscles.
- It’s about independence, and the right to be happy. When romances work this is what they’re about thematically. You can make the script clever and funny, and fill the screen with fetching close-ups, but if we don’t sense something beyond the passion and chemistry, our emotional stake in the outcome is a bit more superficial. Teddy Bear goes the opposite route, opting for the quietly profound.
- Opposites attract—and yet they don’t. Part of the strained formula of the romance genre is to insist, often to the point of shrillness, that the matches "made in heaven" are the ones where the parties involved seem to fit together like matter and anti-matter. There’s some truth in that, but a lot of exaggeration and myth, too. In real life, the differences need to complement each other, not annihilate each other, and Teddy Bear recognizes this while showing that deeper commonalities are also required.
- The romance sneaks up on you; it’s not telegraphed. In Hollywood movies going back to at least the 1930’s, you know how things will work out as soon as you know who the stars are or, at the latest, the moment you see them on screen together. There’s the sparring, the smoldering looks, and all the rest of the moldy ingredients. With Teddy Bear, if you haven’t seen the trailer you actually can’t predict what direction the romance is coming from even when it’s right in front of you.
- Mads Matthiesen is a great director. Don’t want to take my word for it? Then check out the two short films included on the DVD release. "Cathrine" is a memorable story of a teenage girl and an older man; like Teddy Bear, it's also about love and also about the dangers of parents judging their children based upon whom they love. The other short, "Dennis," is a kind of downbeat (but effective) prequel to Teddy Bear that you should save until after you've seen the feature.
- It celebrates possibility. That's what all romances do, really. Some may say that that's one of the shortcomings of the genre: things end happily ever after, and we never see the divorce five years later. There's a valid point in there, but to me it's like criticizing a horror movie for presenting unrealistic or incomplete scenarios in order to scare us. Every genre caters to some form of emotional/psychological fantasy, and so the question becomes how powerful any given text within that genre delivers the goods. With Teddy Bear, the answer to this lies in its wonderfully assured storytelling, hugely likable performances, and an unassuming strength that doesn't need to flex and pose to get our attention.