I have some hesitancy writing about a film that’s not opening in NYC until late August, but I liked Teddy Bear so much when I saw it this past March at the New Directors/New Films series that I wanted to post something about it now. It’s about a Danish body builder named Dennis, who still lives with his mother at age 38. Dennis is played by Kim Kold, a real-life body builder (it would be pretty difficult for a regular actor to appear this pumped up without CGI). He’s as developed as Arnold Schwarzenegger was when he was in Pumping Iron (1977). In other words, really impressive, but a little freakish.
He’s a hulking figure, quiet, shy, and nervous around women, though he’d like to have a girlfriend in his life. His mother, Ingrid (Elsbeth Steentoft), possessive and controlling, obviously hasn’t given much support in this regard. Tiny and seemingly fragile, she wants Dennis all to herself, and becomes petulant when he has plans to go out or do anything that doesn’t include her, laying on passive-aggressive guilt trips (“You haven’t done your chores,” etc).
It treads close to cliché, that of the sad, gentle giant, basically a child, dominated and infantilized by his mother and regarded as something of a freak by those around him who often want to see him pose and show his muscles. The title Teddy Bear would seem to reinforce this image, but the film has a more dry-eyed, objective point of view. I felt sympathy for Dennis, but not pity.
The film opens with Dennis on an increasingly awkward dinner date with a woman from his health club. On his return home, his mother demands to know where he’s been, and he tells her he saw a movie with a friend, the first of many lies he tells Ingrid during the film to avoid her anger and disapproval. She frequently accuses Dennis of being “just like your father.” We know nothing of the father, who is long gone when the film begins, but it’s doubtful this was ever a Leave It to Beaver household. A brief scene in their bathroom at home shows Dennis in the shower while his mother uses the toilet in the foreground. There’s nothing sexual about this; it’s just very weird and inappropriate.
Dennis and his mother attend a dinner party for his Uncle Bent, just returned from Southeast Asia with a Thai bride on his arm. Soon Dennis, with pointers from his uncle and information from the Internet, heads off to Thailand himself, telling his mother he’s going to be in a bodybuilding competition in Germany. His time in Thailand is central to the film. At first he encounters prostitutes, courtesy of Uncle Bent’s friend Scott, a rather gross expatriate who runs a bar. But when he meets a widow who manages a gym where Dennis goes to work out, it’s a different story.
Once back in Denmark, Dennis has to face up to the consequences of his choices and what to tell his mother. The film ends in a very satisfying way, but this is not your typical Hollywood romantic comedy, with everything wrapped up by the end. It doesn’t lead us around and tell us what to think. There are interesting twists and turns along the way.
Teddy Bear is a first feature directed and co-written by Mads Mattiesen, who received the Directing Award in the World Cinema – Dramatic category at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It opens at Film Forum in NYC this August 22 for a 2-week run. This is definitely not a multiplex movie, and will probably be shown in art houses and smaller theaters in other cities. And there will be a home video release eventually. In the meantime, here’s the trailer:
Teddy Bear is based on a short film made by the director in 2007 called Dennis, which sets up the basic dynamic of the mother/son relationship and Dennis’ longing for something more. It’s about 18 minutes long, and here it is! – Ted Hicks