By Anna Bielak | August 23, 2012
Writers: Mads Matthiesen, Martin Zandvliet
Starring: Kim Kold, David Winters, Elsebeth Steentoft, Lamaiporn Hougaard, Mia Maria Back, Chanicha Shindejanichakul, John Winters
Mads Matthiesen’s Teddy Bear is a very subtle, yet ambivalent feature that, at first glance, buries a sort of revolutionary potential within its plot. In its gentleness, and thanks to its modesty in portraying today’s world, it could be considered as a powerful weapon in a war against the cynicism to which we have become accustomed thanks to Michel Houellebecq’s novels and Ulrich Seidl’s films. At the same time, Matthiesen’s directorial debut confirms that the events which are the basis for the French writer’s book Platform and the Austrian director’s latest film called Paradise: Love (2012) are close to being factual. All three artists tell stories about the good and bad sides of sex-tourism practiced by European and American citizens in Asia and Africa. Both Seidl and Houellebeck punish their characters for their lack of interest in long-term relationships; for seizing the day, having night-stands with strangers and acquiescing to the buying and selling sexual pleasures. Matthiesen – on the contrary – tries to prove that there is space for real love among nihilists, cynics, prostitutes and mustached elderly guys who put their fat hands on girls’ skinny thighs. What do Michel’s (Platform’s hero) thoughts about Agatha Christie’s The Hollow tell us about Teddy Bear? Does Matthiesen “achieve something beautiful, a sort of Dickensian sense of wonder”?
Matthiesen, who was awarded the Best Directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, tells a simple story about a very complicated relationship between a 38-year old son and his mother. At the very beginning, he proves how unimportant the physical aspect of being human really is. Dennis (Kim Kold) is muscular, professional, and tattooed; the nicest I have ever seen, yet an extremely shy bodybuilder. In the course of Teddy Bear’s opening sequence, we observe him during a romantic date with a fine, but rather unexceptional, blonde woman. Her low-necked, sexy dress has abashed him beyond doubt. Dennis hides in the toilet and splashes his face with cold water as if he is merely a trebling teenager, not knowing what to do on his first date. Back at home, Dennis lies to his mother about his evening, ashamed that he spent time with a woman. Ingrid (Elsebeth Steentoft) is much shorter than her son; she has a subtle, yet jammed face and a very fragile body. No matter that, she is the one who has full control over Dennis. He is young and vital, yet I can imagine Ingrid crushing him with her own hands. Consequently, she takes his self-confidence away and emotionally blackmails him.
Not only around women but in his own home, Dennis is hiding from the world and dreaming of a better, future life. Do we believe — as Dennis does — that his dreamed life will come true if he ever moves out…or if Ingrid dies? I doubt it. I would prefer to agree with Houellebecq, as Platform’s first chapter begins with Michel stating that he does not believe in the theory that we become real adults after the death of our parents. In his opinion, we never become real adults. Dennis is a great example of that. This big boy goes to Thailand because his uncle brought back to Denmark a beautiful new wife from there. Dennis enters a world of pleasures he has never known. Matthiesen portrays the colorful Bangkok streets filled with lithe, young bodies. Dennis is like an elephant among them. He heads toward the elegant, local brothel, where his uncle found his wife; yet, he cannot turn into a typical, Western sex-tourist.
Dennis studies the prostitutes in the same way as the men in Michael Glawogger’s documentary Whore’s Glory – with admiration and desire – but he looks at them with a specific shyness that Glawogger’s men do not acknowledge. Moreover, there is no lust in Dennis; while lust leads Paradise: Love‘s Terese (Margarete Tiesel) during her bitter adventure with the sultry, African boys. Dennis is far from being a frustrated pessimist, not able to feel anything at all. He is an average man looking for real love. Maybe the reasons Dennis cannot find love in his own Western country are like the ones that Houellebecq mentions in his novel? Perhaps lots of modern men need loving and caring wives deprived of ambitions and sexual fantasies. It could be that the majority of Western women do not perceive themselves in that kind of role, while a lot of Asian girls dream of it. If Dennis does find love and brings a new woman into his life, will she not be nothing more than his mother’s deputy? Should that kind of exchange be called – without a touch of irony – a real wonder or, rather simply, a bitter fair trade?
Matthiesen’s film is an ambiguous one. It could have turned into a joke in the hands of people who would criticize this world; yet, like Platform and Paradise: Love, Teddy Bear is a product of an age in which hope, love and faith are nothing but slogans, as used and outdated as clothes in European second-hand stores – selling for pennies, without logo, without brand, and for many, with no value.