Behind a smug grin as he introduces his film to the virtual audience at Sundance 2022, director Christian Tafdrup, at first glance, comes across as maybe a little too arrogant, self-aggrandizing in an almost abrasive way. Describing the way he conceived the film with co-writer and brother Mads Tafdrup, he boldly proclaims they made a pact to make the most unpleasant experience for an audience. Ever. An almost laughable notion, perhaps a snarky challenge to an audience of horror fans who have ostensibly explored the most unnerving and uncomfortable experiences the genre has to offer. He leaves a final note before the film begins: “It’s okay if you hate it, it’s okay if you love it, but I don’t want to please you too much.”
It’s a bold way to introduce your own film, especially as Tafdrup notes the influence of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, well experienced and revered (or just as equally reviled) for their disturbing and uncomfortable cinema. In comparison to so many other soft spoken festival directors, it feels like quite an intense step of confidence to proclaim your audience is about to have such a definitively miserable experience. Maybe it’s just as smugly arrogant and obnoxiously self-important as it comes across, or maybe it’s all part of Tafdrup’s clever mind game, to make you cross your arms and roll your eyes as the film opens, preparing yourself to feel nothing, only to be proven completely wrong by the film’s unparalleled ability to turn your stomach and leave you coated in nervous sweat.
The reality, settling in after I stood up and turned the lights in my living room back on, is maybe somewhere in between. It’s hard to deny the objectively unpleasant experience you’ve just undergone, and there perhaps Tafdrup has succeeded, the sheer insanity of it all so gut wrenching that you can barely form a coherent thought at the film’s destructive climax, but the lingering feeling isn’t quite so powerful. After the dust settles, all you’re left with is the pervasive thought that though you may have been unmistakably squirmy throughout the film’s runtime and frozen in total shock by the end, maybe that’s really all the film has to offer, a palpably unpleasant atmosphere at the expense of any other cogent aspect of a cinematic experience.
Speak No Evil, ultimately, is a test of social expectation and our demonstrably self-destructive tendency to be polite right up until it becomes our downfall. Opening during an innocuous summer vacation in Tuscany, Danish couple Bjørn and Louise, along with young daughter Agnes, make friends with fellow vacationers, Dutch couple Patrick and Karin, and their quiet son Abel. “Single serving friends,” as described by the narrator in Fight Club (1999), and who among us hasn’t had the experience of making that fleeting connection on neutral ground, with others who are similarly locked in the ephemeral bliss of a week without responsibility or reality knocking at the door? But for Bjørn and Louise, the real catalyst comes months later, when they receive a postcard from Patrick and Karin inviting them to spend some time at their home in the picturesque countryside of the Netherlands. They accept the invitation, but even without Sune Kølster’s crushingly haunting score constantly scratching at the edges of the frame, it becomes quickly apparent that this is not going to be an enjoyable experience for anyone involved.
The discomforting chord that is struck repeatedly with coarse sandpaper successfully achieves Tafdrup’s desired effect of unease, conjuring every excruciating memory of being in a situation that pushes you just to your limit. Social claustrophobia that pressures you to retain your façade of pleasantries as you quietly suffer and wait for it all to just be over, each moment of tension toeing a razor thin line between an explainable cultural misunderstanding and a decidedly unacceptable action. “How far would you let it go?” The echoing whisper of Tafdrup’s spirit seems to prod you through the screen, reveling maniacally as you slowly sink into your couch at the torturously relatable discomfort of Bjørn and Louise continuing to fall victim to Patrick and Karin’s increasingly brazen social button pushing.
The tension builds methodically, a clear intent behind it all to make you go slowly insane as the runtime grates on you with the subtlety of a boulder to the skull, but it’s hard to say if it all feels earned or worthwhile. Despite the torturous atmosphere that’s built, it’s so achingly one note in its self-important “social satire” that it almost gets tiring, and by the time it feels ready to turn the ignition and slam the pedal to the floor for its whiplash-inducing finale, it fails to land as believably demented despite the unmistakably horrific and shocking atmosphere that permeates. So, you’ve done it, Mr. Tafdrup. Undeniably, you’ve crafted one of the most enveloping and displeasing cinematic experiences around, one rife with just enough believable social pressure to leave you questioning how you’d fare in a similar scenario. The lingering question is whether that amounts to much substance, if any, or if it mostly boils down to cheap brutality designed to shock the audience, as unrealistic as it is wildly sadistic.