A Horrible Woman: Awkward but efficient couples therapy in 86 minutes
by Stefan Dobroiu
- Christian Tafdrup’s second feature explores the pitfalls of a dysfunctional relationship
A prankster would heartily recommend Danish director Christian Tafdrup’s relationship drama A Horrible Woman [+see also:
film profile], now competing in the Competition 1-2 at the Warsaw International Film Festival, to a heterosexual couple. “Don’t mind the title; it’s great for a date night,” he or she might say. And the recommendation would not be totally wrong (despite it being a truly unfortunate choice for a cosy date night), as most couples navigate, at various moments, the dark waters that actor-screenwriter-director Tafdrup explores in his second feature.
We first see Rasmus (an efficient, likeable Anders Juul) having fun in his apartment with his best friends. After countless beers, they seem ready to smash the place up without a second thought, but things turn quieter when Pernille (Carla Mickelborg), the partner of Rasmus’ best friend, Troels (Rasmus Hammerich), shows up with a group of friends. This is just the first disruptive appearance of the second sex, as Simone de Beauvoir would put it, in a long series, as among the newcomers there is the gorgeous Marie (Amanda Collin), whom Rasmus takes an instant liking to.
Tafdrup could be criticised because of the rather ill-intentioned title, which immediately invites the audience to advocate a certain point of view, but things are not so easy to judge in this 86-minute exploration of what can go wrong in a couple (without one partner killing the other). The screenplay, written by the director together with his brother, Mads Tafdrup, efficiently shows what happens in a relationship when one partner is too controlling and the other too eager to please.
Given the title of the movie, it is obvious that the first few weeks of courtship between Marie and Rasmus are mere exposition. Nevertheless, their chemistry is seemingly so powerful that the audience instantly hopes the title is misleading. It creates a tension and gives rise to a question: what will be the first horrible thing that Marie will do? But her horribleness becomes apparent only through accumulation, and therein lies the power of A Horrible Woman: nothing extreme happens between Rasmus and Marie, as their actions constantly widen and deepen the abyss between them, making the bridges crossing it longer and narrower.
They say relationships are like a dance, but what happens when one of the partners keeps stepping on the other’s toes? Or pushes him into a table or a door? A Horrible Woman distils the awkward, mean and petty things that can happen in a relationship thanks to Marie’s controlling, manipulative, passive-aggressive behaviour. She constantly makes Rasmus feel insecure, but while it’s easy to point to the film’s villain, it is not as straightforward to point to the film’s hero: Rasmus has no idea what he wants, and all he does is react to Marie’s actions. And that doesn’t make him a victim.
Going back to the prank mentioned before, maybe Tafdrup’s intention was to get back at former partners, but A Horrible Woman can be seen in a more constructive way. We can easily imagine couples watching the film and recognising patterns from their own relationship. Talking about them and analysing them could be extremely beneficial, as A Horrible Woman can show them what can go wrong (hopefully) before it does so.
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