Mads Matthiesen’s Sundance winner Teddy Bear, now on MUBI, is a gently told male-emancipation story

Baradwaj Rangan
·6-min read

The first image of Mads Matthiesen's Danish short film, Dennis (2007), is that of a big man, a really big man, a hulk of a man sitting on his bed. Dennis (Kim Kold) is a bodybuilder: 6'7 feet tall, 308 pounds of raw muscle power. But in this opening moment, he's at his most vulnerable. He has in his hands a piece of paper with the phone number of a woman named Patricia (Lykke Sand Michelsen). He wants to ask her out to dinner. When he calls her, he adds this bit: "I'll pay, of course"!

Two things make us feel even more for Dennis, who is a total misfit outside the confines of his gym. First, the date. It goes pretty well, and then Patricia invites him to a house party with her friends. When they learn he is a professional bodybuilder and that he's preparing for the Danish championships, they ask him to take his shirt off and show off his muscles. To be fair, they probably don't mean any harm. They just want to see a bodybuilder strut his stuff. (It's not something that happens in your living room every day.) But there's also the sense that they're treating him like they'd treat a male stripper.

The second aspect of Dennis' life is even more pitiful. He lives with his clingy mother, Ingrid (Elsebeth Steentoft). Even when he's going to see Patricia, he says he is going to a movie with his friend Peter. "I'll just eat roast pork on my own and play cards on my own," the mother says, fully aware of the guilt she's inducing in Dennis. She had a bad marriage. Her husband was an alcoholic. Maybe she's one of those people who feel the world owes them something, even if she's able to get that something only through the passive-aggressive manipulation of her son.

In Teddy Bear (2012), which premiered at Sundance and won the World Cinema Directing Award: Dramatic, Mads Matthiesen expanded this premise to a full-length feature. The final image of Dennis is that of Dennis crawling into bed, next to his mother, as though he were a little boy who'd just had a nightmare. An early scene in Teddy Bear expands on this image. As Dennis takes a shower, Ingrid comes into the bathroom and relieves herself. Clearly, boundaries are for the birds.

The plot gets going when Dennis and Ingrid attend the wedding celebration of Ingrid's brother, who's married a much-younger Thai woman. The stone-faced Danes barely seem capable of hiding their disapproval, but the groom doesn't care. Later, he tells Dennis that Asian women are less judgemental and more accepting. This sows a seed in Dennis' head, and he heads off to Thailand. (Of course, he tells Ingrid that he's off to Germany for a bodybuilding competition.)

The mid-portion of this charming, underplayed film tackles the question: How do you find true love in a place that's so casual about free sex? As Dennis checks into his hotel, the receptionist asks him if he will pay for "the girl" now. He is confused. What girl? The receptionist tells him: the girl he's sure to bring back to his room at night. That's going to cost extra. So does he want to pay for it now? The receptionist has seen so many foreign tourists descend on her country with just this one thing on their minds, and she has no reason to think Dennis is any different.

And the first "girl" that he's introduced to thinks exactly the same way. The set-up happens because of a mediator who knows Dennis is looking for love, but the girl thinks he just wants sex. A little later, in the film's most touching scene, Dennis retreats to a gym, which is the only place he really knows, the only place that's "home". And there, all the shyness he feels around women vanishes. He chats up another bodybuilder. There's not a trace of awkwardness. So doesn't it make sense that the woman he does end up going out with, Toi (Lamaiporn Sangmanee Hougaard), happens to be the widow of the man who owned this gym?

Teddy Bear is a predictable film, but what works (and what probably earned it the award for directing) is the refreshing simplicity of the tone.

The film is shot like an observational documentary. The colours are like those you'd get in a home video. Nothing looks "staged".

There are no big highs, no major lows. Is this a rom-com? I don't think so. Made that way, Teddy Bear would focus on the romance. Here, it's more about a man trying to break free of psychological shackles, both self-imposed and mother-instilled.

Dennis ends up inviting Toi to Denmark, and where he puts her up in a separate flat, because he does not want his mother to know he's finally getting himself a life. As sorry as we feel for Dennis, I also felt for Toi. Here she is, in a new country where she doesn't speak the language and knows just this one man, and he keeps rushing back home so his mother doesn't think anything is different. Some of us may wonder why she doesn't just dump him and leave.

But as the director told Indiewire, Teddy Bear attempts to portray the very different pathways love takes when two very different cultures meet. "In Thailand, love is about survival, especially in the poorer strata of society. A woman has to find a husband who can support the entire family, from children to grandparents. That is why poor girls from villages in the North of Thailand head for places like Pattaya. The main character Dennis travels to Pattaya on his quest for love. Pattaya is known for lonely richer western tourists seeking poor Thai women. And vice versa."

It's this clash that the film portrays so well, so unassumingly. (And it's why the story wouldn't have worked as well had Dennis undertaken a similar romantic quest in, say, Germany.) In a way, Teddy Bear turns the "emancipation movie" on its head. Most times, the person who needs emancipating is a woman. It's interesting to see this most masculine-looking of men (Dennis) needing to "find himself", too.

Teddy Bear is streaming on MUBI.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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