We’ve all been there. You’re enjoying your hard-earned vacation with the family, maybe lying on a sun-lounger soaking up some rays, or eating a spicy paella dish in a fancy Spanish restaurant while sipping fruity red wine and suddenly another holiday-maker, one who has given you friendly nods here and there, begins a conversation with you at the next lounger or the next table. It takes you back a little. Surely everyone on vacation wants the same as you: quiet, relaxation, fun, and very little conversation with strangers. But, no, there is always a couple who can’t vacation alone and require interaction, and that the fun and relaxation need to be shared for it to be meaningful. The scenario usually goes two ways. Complete ignorance and avoidance of those vacationers until it’s time to go home or a gentle embrace and polite tolerance of their friendly advances. Either way, you lose the essence of the vacation. Guilt at being obtuse and offensive or exhausted by your own submissive nature.
Exploring this cowardness appears to be the theme of Danish Psychological horror Speak No Evil (2022), directed by Christian Tafdrup. The film asks what lengths do we go to not cause conflict and call out and call time on abhorrent behaviours.
Danish couple Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) and their young daughter Agnes go on vacation to Tuscany. They meet Dutch couple Patrick and Karin (real life married couple Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders respectively), and their young son Abel, who has trouble speaking due to a congenital defect. They become friendly and spend the last few days of their vacation together. A number of weeks after the vacation, Bjørn and Louise receive a postcard invitation from Patrick and Karin to spend a weekend at their house in the Netherlands. Bjørn and Louise accept the invite and drive across the country. In the presence of Patrick, Karin, and Abel, they notice behavioural red flags that alert them that something is amiss with the Dutch family. Patrick, complementary of Louise’s vegetarianism while on vacation, suddenly becomes dismissive and argumentative about it. He repeatedly blasts loud music while driving over the drinking limit, he also lies about his profession as a doctor, and is verbally abusive towards Abel. Karin also exhibits odd behavior. She swears in front of the kids, and when Agnes cries out in the night, she retrieves her from the bedroom and brings Agnes into bed with her and Patrick, who happen to sleep naked. Karin also begins to neglect Abel and talk to Agnes in a motherly tone. Everything is just slightly odd. No threat of violence or verbal intimidation but certainly an air of uneasiness.
Bjørn, Louise, and Agnes decide to leave in the early morning without saying goodbye, but they have to return to the house for Agnes’s stuffed bunny that she left behind. They are confronted by Patrick and Karin who ask what they have done to offend them. Bjørn and Louise are not forthcoming with a decent answer. Nonetheless, Patrick and Karin apologize and persuade the Danish family to continue their stay. Bjørn and Louise agree. On the last day Bjørn stumbles upon a room filled with luggage and walls adorned with photos of Patrick and Karin on vacation with other families and different children by their side, Bjørn panics. He believes he and his family are the next victims in a heinous crime. While fleeing the room, he discovers Abel dead and face down in a pool. He neglects to help the boy. He collects his family without revealing his grim discoveries.
The family flee once again, this time pursued by Patrick. Their car breaks down and while out looking for help, Patrick pulls over to assist Louise and Agnes. They find Bjørn, who even after knowing the truth of Patrick and Karin’s crimes remains silent and docile to what is about to occur. Suddenly a man opens the car door, holds down Agnes and cuts out her tongue and takes her away. Patrick and Karin take a distraught, yet still stunted, Bjørn and Louise to a disused quarry, make them strip naked and stone them to death.
Patrick and Karin are seen later driving to their next vacation destination with a mute Agnes sitting in the back seat clinging to her stuffed bunny.
Speak No Evil is a deeply enthralling and unsettling satirical horror film that keeps the viewer guessing at the motives of Patrick and Karin until its seriously grim ending. Less a comedy of manners more a horror of manners, the film nonetheless offers some quiet black humour and apt social commentary. It operates with a similar eerie and sustained dread as Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015) and Duncan Birmingham’s recent film Who Invited Them (2022)
Throughout the film there are so many moments that make the viewer scream “say something” or “run” but the docile mannerisms of Bjørn and Louise are as frustrating as they are totally relatable. Even as their lives are endangered and their daughter seemingly kidnapped, they cannot muster the energy to fight back or even find some choice words before they are executed. The film places a mirror in front of our own tolerance and our own accommodations of toxicity. This toxicity exists in our day-to-day interactions with friends, family and co-workers, but also in society and from our political leaders and celebrities. Like Bjørn and Louise, we have been beaten into acceptance and servitude by the relentless bad behaviors, gaslighting, and reality-bending exploits of those we look to for guidance. It’s exhausting and Bjørn and Louise are the epitome of this exhaustion with modern society. Bjørn even admits to Patrick that he’s an automaton. Work, sleep, eat, repeat.
Throughout the film one utters to themselves “well, I’d certainly say something about that”, or “that would be the point I’d get up and leave”, but in reality, our reactions would be like Bjørn and Louise’s self-subjugation. We wouldn’t want to cause offence, create a conflict, maybe not make someone dislike us and think us a dick or a bitch. We would accommodate to the point of servitude. We know we would. We’d die knowing that at least we didn’t cause a fuss. The final words of the film belong to Patrick who in response to Bjørn’s question of why they were committing this act upon them replies “because you let me.” Yeah, we let them do this to us all the time. Go figure.
Speak No Evil is available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Shudder.